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Dark Will Linger by Hippothestrowl

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Format: Novel
Chapters: 37
Word Count: 209,438
Status: COMPLETED

Rating: Mature
Warnings: Mild Language, Strong Violence, Scenes of a Mild Sexual Nature, Substance Use or Abuse, Sensitive Topic/Issue/Theme

Genres: Mystery, Romance, Action/Adventure
Characters: Harry, Ron, Hermione, Draco, Ginny, Luna, Neville, OC
Pairings: Harry/Ginny, Ron/Hermione, Other Pairing

First Published: 11/06/2011
Last Chapter: 05/12/2012
Last Updated: 05/12/2012

Summary:


Voldemort is dead but does his dark will linger on? Has he cursed the entire world! School year after Battle of Hogwarts.Sequel to Dark Sacrifice-not essential reading. & Neville/Hannah Luna/?


Chapter 1: Reunions and Adjustments; Sorrow and Joy
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"Nothing will be the same again, will it Harry." It was not a question. Harry gave a wry smile as he recognized the voice of Neville Longbottom and he and Ginny turned to greet their friend. The last of the daylight was fading. Neville had approached quietly from behind them as they gazed, subdued, at Hogwarts castle for the first time since the Great Battle. Harry could only slowly shake his head in resigned agreement and it was Ginny who was first to go forward and embrace Neville.

"Good to see you again, Neville." said Ginny as she took a step back to look at him. This was a new Neville. He was no longer a nervous boy. This was a young man, tougher, leaner, hardened by the experiences of the last years at Hogwarts and his stand against Voldemort. Harry came forward and shook his hand warmly, their mutual respect unspoken except by the shared look in their eyes and the slight nod of their heads. Both had played their part and with as much Gryffindor courage to destroy the Dark Lord.

Neville spoke first, "Heard both you two were coming back for another year - glad to hear it actually. Most of our year are coming back to catch up on the subjects wasted under the Carrows, try to get their NEWTS." Neville's face darkened at the memory.

"Seamus and Dean were on the Express. Luna, Hermione, Ron, Hannah - all the DA I think. I took my time - they're all ahead of me." Neville had walked up slowly, contemplating this, his last year at Hogwarts.

Harry nodded. He knew Ron and Hermione were travelling by the Hogwarts Express for old times' sake.

"Well, Ginny still has another year to go anyway and we've had to spend too much time apart already. I'm also hoping it will restore some sense of normality to our lives." said Harry, "And I want my qualifications if I'm to become an auror."

"You don't need certificates, Harry. They'd accept you as a trainee auror immediately, no doubt about that!" replied Neville with a grin. It seemed laughable that the one who had destroyed the most powerful, most evil wizard in a century could possibly be rejected by the Aurors whose sole purpose was to fight those who practiced the dark arts. There were still Death Eaters out there right now - and the ever-present possibility of a new leader in the future.

"Shhh!" said Ginny with a mock finger to her lips, "I've been avoiding telling him that! I don't think I could have stood another year at Hogwarts without Harry." She hung on to Harry's arm as if to stop him escaping her again.

"Didn't see you on the train..." began Neville.

"No, we apparated direct to Hogsmeade earlier. There were a few more school items we still needed to buy and anyway, we wanted a little time to wander around - without having to look over our shoulders for a change! Been in the pharmacy and the bookshop but mainly just enjoying the freedom from fear in the streets. Swapped a few stories with the locals and ... it was relaxing." said Harry. He gazed across the darkening lake rippled by the light breeze. So many memories were coming back to him now that he was seeing everything from a completely different perspective, free of the burden and the worry.

As a few more young stragglers unknowingly passed them heading towards the castle, the trio turned and viewed the great building again. Apart from a few honorary battle scars to turrets and towers, most of the magical restoration had already been done and Hogwarts Castle was as resplendent as ever. Banners and flags swayed and fluttered against the ancient stonework. Lights were beginning to appear at windows and doorways as the light of the sun receded further below the horizon. The sky blackened in the east to reveal the first few stars of the autumn night and the new Hogwarts' school year.

With the failing light a new wind started to blow lightly but coolly from the north and Ginny hugged her school robes around herself with a shiver. Harry put his arm around her shoulder and was rewarded with a loving smile as Ginny huddled nearer. The three of them gazed and talked for a few more minutes until the last of the daylight was gone.

"I guess we'd better go ahead." said Ginny, linking arms between the other two and guiding them forward.

In the special circumstances of having had most of a school year under the control of the Death Eaters followed by the mental and physical damage of the Battle of Hogwarts, the rest of that school's last term had been abandoned. This year, Hogwarts' syllabuses were only slightly altered from earlier years but lesson schedules had been added to and modified to be more flexible.

Under the leadership of Professor Minerva McGonagall as the new headmistress, many of the older students were being granted honorary status and given more freedom of class attendance and private study. Extra lessons were to be provided for those that needed them to make up for missed ones. It was hoped that by the end of the school year everything would be back to normal for succeeding years.

As the trio came up to the front entrance they saw Professor McGonagall standing above on the steps and looking rather sternly down at them. Then her face broke out into a generous smile. "Greetings students! You will find a rather informal atmosphere for the first few days because we are still adjusting. You're not too late for the assembly in the great hall as we have had several delays. There are a couple more latecomers I see - then we can begin. Good to see you all again."

"Thank you Professor." the trio greeted the new headmistress. Because of the expected freedoms granted them this year they had anticipated going straight to Gryffindor Tower and perhaps having a quiet sandwich but it might be nice to see the sorting ceremony one more time and enjoy the feast. Harry knew it would be strange for him though; he had never seen a sorting without Professor Dumbledore being present. They trudged up the steps after their long walks and headed through the entrance.

Apart from some badly cracked and scorched stonework on one wall temporarily covered by a canvas the entrance hall was just the same and the flagstones rang to the sound of their footsteps as they walked to the Great Hall.

There was spontaneous applause as they entered the Great Hall and students and staff alike arose in recognition. They smiled back only slightly nervously; Harry was almost getting used to this now. There were many heroes here now - both staff and students - but Neville and Harry had been vital in dealing directly with Voldemort face to face and achieving the seemingly impossible. Many others would have tried but they were very glad they hadn't had to.

In the last month or so both Neville and Harry had been inundated with meetings and interviews, honorary memberships, recognitions and awards, but the ones they were both most proud of were their Orders of Merlin First Class. Harry's reminded him of Sephany and the hours he had spent reading to her but seeing only her medal. For Neville, his gave him some symbol of avenging his parents. These were the only ones they had brought with them in their baggage with their dress robes in case they were summoned to yet another ceremony.

"I'll be back with you in a minute." said Neville mysteriously and he went ahead of them towards the Hufflepuff table.

They spotted Ron and Hermione waving from their usual places and Harry and Ginny quickly joined them. They had all stayed at the Weasleys much of the summer but had left them that morning and not seen each other all day.

"Did you get your shopping done?" asked Hermione, eyeing the bags they were carrying.

"All but one potion ingredient and we enjoyed walking around." replied Ginny. She was replying to Hermione but looking over at Neville who was stood talking to Hannah Abbott. Presently he came over to them and took his usual seat with the Gryffindors. Ginny was pleased to see a little smile on Neville's face. When she had been here last year, Neville had been forming a relationship with Luna Lovegood but that had ended when Luna was kidnapped by the Death Eaters at Christmas. Afterwards, with both Hannah and Neville working closely together in the DA resistance movement, Ginny had noticed the couple were being drawn closer together even before she herself left at Easter. Ginny waved across at Luna and mouthed a few words to indicate they could talk later. Luna gave a big smile back but her eyes kept flicking to Neville.

"I'm glad you all got along fine together without me earlier this year. Sorry I couldn't come back after Easter. The DA did great!" said Ginny to Neville.

"Yes, with you and Luna gone as well it was tough but the rest of us got together." Neville was looking towards Hannah again, "We managed to disrupt the Carrows as much as we could as well as prepare for your return." He addressed this last to them all with remembered excitement in his voice, "One of the best moments of my life when I saw you three in the Hog's Head."

"One of the greatest surprises of my life when you popped out of the painting on the mantelpiece!" laughed Ron.

Their chatting was interrupted as Professor McGonagall arose and began to address the assembly. "Before we begin, I would like us all to spend a few moments in memory of those who are absent."

She began to slowly read out a list amongst which were Fred Weasley, Colin Creavey, and Severus Snape. Harry had made sure all the right people knew Snapes heroic part in Voldemort's downfall. There was the sound of one or two children crying and the eyes of some of the teachers were shining too. Harry noticed and was pleased McGonagall didn't include the name of Vincent Crabbe. He was not sure if that might have caused some unpleasant commotion.

"We shall now stand in silent remembrance for one minute." finished the headmistress.

Harry could not remember the Great Hall being so quiet. Perhaps the silence seemed magnified because there were so many gathered there. He thought about Fred and Colin. He thought about Tonks and Remus. He thought about Dumbledore and Snape. His tears were all wept long before and now he just felt sad.

After the minute, Professor McGonagall continued "Now we must all look forward to the new school year. In case anyone is in doubt, I am your new headmistress. Professor Flitwick is now deputy headmaster. We have Professor Slughorn back as potions master and a new Defence against the Dark Arts teacher, Professor Millicent Worley. I'm hopeful that this new post will be much more long lasting than previously." McGonagall gave a wry smile. Worley was a slender woman with short dark hair and a determined look on her strong features.

The sorting ceremony followed and there seemed as many new youngsters starting as most other years spread fairly evenly among the four school houses. Harry noted how first years seemed to look smaller and younger each year. Had he really looked like that? He turned to where the Slytherins usually sat. For the first time he saw Draco Malfoy who gave a stern but subdued look back at Harry. Goyle would not be returning to Hogwarts and with Crabbe dead, Harry wondered how Malfoy would behave without his two main supporters. He did not have to wait long to find out.

As they were leaving the Great Hall, Draco passed them. He noticed Harry was about to speak to him but he cut in first. "Nothing's changed Potter just because you got me out of the Room of Hidden..."

Ron interrupted before he could finish, "You worthless, ungrateful worm!" and he pushed Malfoy back hard against the wall, knocking all the breath out of him. Ron was drawing back his arm and bunching a fist.

"Ron, no!" shouted Hermione and Ginny, practically together. "He's not worth it."

"Enough!" it was the new defence teacher, Professor Worley, sweeping out of the Great Hall, "No brawling in the corridors!"

"You!" she was looking at Malfoy, "I heard what you said! Five points off ... Slytherin is it? Next time you stir up trouble it will be detention! Now move off to your classes, all of you."

"You think it's over! It's not over Potter! Not for you nor all your mudblood and muggle friends!" Malfoy strode quickly away followed even more rapidly by Worley who was calling after him, "Detention, Malfoy! Don't you dare flout my authority!" She reached him, grasped his left arm and stepped quickly right, allowing Malfoy's own momentum to spin him left. The teacher stumbled him with her left leg, forced his shoulders down and his wrist up. A moment later his arm was locked behind him, his wand taken, and Worley was marching him away. Her slim frame was clearly very tough and her physical skills suggested real combat experience.

"Wicked! I like her already!" said Ron, "What house was she in? Must have been Gryffindor surely?"

"Must have been the marines!" thought Harry, staring after her in amazement and muttered aloud to himself. "Did she use any magic?" He and Ron looked at one another wide-eyed.

"Ravenclaw I think." said Hermione then turned to Luna Lovegood who was just coming out of the Great Hall. "Was Professor Worley in Ravenclaw, Luna?"

"No, she never came to Hogwarts," replied Luna chirpily, "at least, that's what some of the girls have been saying. Her family have a large house in Kent but they travel all over the world a lot and we think Professor Worley was taught in different schools."

Hermione spoke up, "Well, she must have a wide experience of different teaching methods so it will be interesting to see what she's like in Defence this afternoon."

"What's wrong Harry?" asked Luna. She could see a look of serious concern on his face.

"Nothing ... it's nothing." replied Harry.

"He's an idiot! We can handle him!" said Ron.

"What is it, Harry? Is it something else?" asked Ginny, more attuned to Harry's feelings than anyone now they spent so much time together.

Hermione cried out, "Oh No, Harry! It really is over. The few Death Eaters left are being rounded up by the aurors. Don't even think about it anymore."

Everyone was now staring at Harry, gathered around him in the hallway outside the Great Hall. His hesitant silence spoke loudly to all who knew him so well.

"Oh Harry!" said Ginny with dismay in her voice, "You have to tell us. You can't keep it to yourself. Not any longer. Not now."

There was a grim line to Harry's smile as he spoke, "There was something. Probably nothing. We can't talk here. Let's talk later. Come on." and politely offering his arm to Ginny he moved off drawing the group along with him.

"We won't forget you know." smiled Ginny, hugging Harry's arm.

"I know. I know." said Harry resignedly, giving her an affectionate peck on the cheek.


Chapter 2: First Class Lessons
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"See you in potions!" mouthed Ginny to Harry as she backed away down the school corridor performing a cauldron-stirring mime. Twenty paces away, Harry's eyes widened and he instinctively started to reach out to help as she tripped over an old broken stone, no doubt dislodged during the fighting a couple of months ago. She sat down heavily and rather foolishly on the floor. Harry laughed partly from relief that she was alright as Ginny got clumsily to her feet, rolled her eyes to dismiss her embarrassment and scurried away down the hallway.

Because of the special arrangements, many older students were effectively taking their seventh year again - albeit a modified form of it. This meant merging lessons with normal seventh year students and several classrooms had been enlarged to accomodate more. This was a big factor in Harry's decision to return to Hogwarts for another year; he would be sharing many lessons with Ginny. In addition, these normal seventh year students were also taking extra lessons as needed to make up for failures of the Carrows curriculum. At the end of the previous school year, after the Great Battle, many of them had also been given special homework studies to do over the holidays to prepare them.

So in the first of Professor Slughorn's potions classes this year, Harry and Ginny were elated to be teamed up together at the same table and of course, Ron and Hermione were also paired at the next workbench. The sound of stirrings and bubblings; the mix of strangely-coloured smokes and equally odd-looking steam, the changing light glows from different parts of the otherwise gloomy room, all gave the place a hazy, dreamy quality. The varied pungent smells now included some rather dubious organic odours from left over food samples that were being used for testing. Harry had never been more at peace within himself and certainly never been this happy in a potions class. He had wondered if he would be able to focus on lessons with Ginny to distract him but in fact it relaxed him. He also no longer had the burden of worries that had troubled him over the last few years.

Ginny, seeing how happy he was, felt reluctant to remind Harry about his concerns earlier that day over Malfoy. She had kept silent on the matter all through the lesson. Inwardly she had been thinking that now Harry had vanquished the dreadful threat of Voldemort from his life he would surely feel free to... Well, he had already made clear his love and affection for her but she ached for him to voice his commitment to her. It's true that Harry was now with her every moment that he was able. Surely there could be no doubt. As she slowly stirred her steaming potion she did not need to keep specific count of the stirrings with this particular brew. She only had to glance at the clock regularly so her mind was free and wandered off to her hoped-for future.

There was something homely about their working together here preparing potions - like being in their own kitchen. She paused in her stirring for a moment. 'Their' kitchen she had thought. She had already dreamed of their setting up home together one day. Was it this new secret that was holding Harry back from asking her? Did he not know she would accept him at any cost; whatever the risk? Perhaps she should tell him. Perhaps she should ask him. But she wanted it to come from him. Almost annoyingly she began stirring more vigorously and slopped some mixture onto the old bench top where it added to the years, maybe centuries, of multi-coloured stains that, along with knife cuts and scratches, already marked it clearly as a potions work table.

Within moments of feeling mildly frustrated at Harry she became angry with herself. How dare she feel this way? Harry had died - and something inside her had almost died too. All that kept her from madness at that time was the hate and anger which she poured into her attacks against the Death Eaters in that last Great Battle. She simply had not had time to dwell on the inner numbness of her apparent loss. She had not the opportunity to grieve properly and realize how worthless her life would be without the one she loved. She had not fought to stay alive; she had fought with hate and anger and for revenge; she had fought with supreme ferocity. She did not know if she had killed any of her opponents. Perhaps that was a blessing. She did not care to know.

Then Harry was alive again! How her heart had soared. How her emotions had performed acrobatics of astonishment and delight. He had come back to her! She had no right to be annoyed and frustrated. Every minute now with Harry was a gift.

"Gin?" It was Harry gesturing to her to look at the time.

Startled, Ginny looked at the clock. She stopped stirring this current batch, added a spoonful of dried, ground Synsepalum dulcificum berries, chanted "Gusto Excultus" softly four times while stirring slowly again. She then sprinkled it with common dittany and left the mixture to cool and settle while she began preparing the filters.

They had both achieved several good brews of Golden Flavour and tested it with various food snacks both bitter and dreadful. The potion was intended for consumption before partaking of any meal that was expected to taste bland or awful. It was ideal for use before going to the house of a relative or friend with poor culinary skills and was part of a course of practical everyday potions.

"How's your cooking, Gin" asked Harry impulsively and perhaps revealing something of his own train of thought.

"You should know - you ate most of my biscuits and buns last holiday."

"They were yours?" asked Harry sounding impressed.

"Yes. Why are you asking anyway?" grinned Ginny, somewhat flushed and averting her gaze.

"Oh, no reason. Just in case... erm You know. Just curious. It's good to be erm... cooking ... to be a cook ... In case you er... needed to cook something." He was keeping one eye on the approaching teacher.

"Mmm... rather domestic, Harry." said Professor Slughorn as he came round checking the students' work. "It's good but not quite up to your usual inventiveness. Remember, Don't be afraid to spice it up a little. Look at, smell, and taste Miss Weasley's brew for inspiration; it's excellent." He beamed at Ginny as he munched a small test piece of dry bread, added more to his notes, and wandered off.

Ginny stuck her tongue out at Harry in mock superiority. "Now I don't need to cook. I'll just serve up Golden Flavour and stale bread." She threw a piece of dry crust at Harry which started a furtive silent bread fight back and forth tempered with glances at which way the teacher was facing. Ron and Hermione both grinned.

"First years, eh Ron?" she whispered.

"Just kids really. I see now why you fell for the more mature type." replied Ron.

"I'll fell you in a minute, grandad." Hermione vigorously shook a vial at him and the cork shot out, hit Michael Corner on the head, and fell into his bubbling potion on the next bench. He glared and wasted away a couple of minutes trying to fish it out with a grubby stirring stick. Hermione was laughing and waving a spoon at him to suggest he try with one. This he eventually did then he used it like a catapault to flip the cork at Ron. Ron ducked and Harry snatched it skilfully out of the air and tossed it to Hermione who was still giggling. The difficult experiences of the last year had taken something of the stiffness out of Hermione's personality and Ron was pleased to see she could lighten up much more readily these days.

After inspecting everyone's results, Professor Slughorn was allowing those with working potions to take them home for their own use in the future and most of the students were bottling the contents of their cauldrons into small vials.

So in this happy atmosphere, Ginny glared at her brother when, leaving Hermione to finish the bottling, he whispered to Harry to remind him about his earlier worries over Draco Malfoy.

"We've got a short break after this, Harry. ... You know ... I was wondering if..." said Ron, hoping Harry would understand to what he was inferring.

Harry paused for a few moments, then replied. "Do you remember the old classroom on the first floor where we had the mind sessions with David a year or so back?"

"Yes, of course."

"Can you get word to Luna and..." Harry turned and with his hands full of old bread and a couple of utensils. He gestured with his head towards Neville to signal him to come over, "...and we'll all meet up there this evening. It will be like old times."

"Harry, we no longer have permission..." began Hermione, who was listening in between corking and labelling. She had multiplied the cork with a transforming spell but was struggling to cork the vials by reducing then enlarging them after they were in the bottles. Some corks had fallen inside before she had restored them to normal size. After using Accio a few times she was beginning to think it would be easier to hammer the corks in. She looked around in exasperation. Everyone else seemed to be corking easily.

"Since when did that stop us?" smirked Harry, "and anyway, Dumbledore's permission has never been actually revoked to my knowledge."

"Sure, I'll get word to the DA..." started Ron.

"Is this about Muggle Studies?" whispered Neville as he came close by their benches and pretended to return some ingredients to a cupboard.

"No, Ron, just us six; the original six. I'll explain when we get there." said Harry to Ron. He then turned to Neville, "No. What about Muggle Studies? I don't think there is any such class this year."

"Exactly. It's all wrong. The Carrows were giving out all sorts of evil nonsense last year and some of the kids were taking it in, believing it!" replied Neville. "It's kind of offensive to drop it now - like they've won and especially after what happened to Professor Burbage."

Hermione was now muttering and cursing under her breath and becoming rather flustered. She tried to reason out some sensible method of getting the corks into the bottles. Perhaps she should expand the vials first then reduce them when the corks were inside.

"Well ... have a word with Dum... Have a word with the headmistress." suggested Harry. "Listen, we want to meet in the old first floor classroom this evening - you know - Er... better make it 9:00pm - I've got so much homework to do first. Can you get word to Luna?"

"Well not really... Erm..." Neville hesitated nervously like his old self, then hardened his face again, "Yes of course. No problem."

"I can tell Luna if you want. I'd rather." said Ginny. "I'll be seeing her later anyway." she saw a momentary glimmer of gratitude on Neville's face and an "OK." that confirmed what she suspected but she still underestimated Neville.

"On second thoughts, No. I should speak to her..." began Neville.

"Speak to her at the meeting then." advised Ginny. "I'll tell her the time and place in defence class this afternoon." She was eyeing Hermione who was still struggling with her corks. Hermione had tried wrapping both string and spello-tape around them and was now using pliers but the corks were splitting into more and fragments each time she tried something new. Exasperated, she picked up a cork and threatened it with her wand.

"Your corks are too moist. They've swollen up. You'll never get them in." She lobbed a new dry cork to Hermione who stared wide-eyed for a few moments then screwed the cork in easily.

Neville nodded at Ginny and went back to his workbench deep in thought.

"By the way, don't forget to multiply it before you stick it in the bottle." said Ginny with a grin at Hermione.

"Ginny!" Hermione stood with her hands on her hips glaring at Ginny who winked back at her and threw her another cork. She had always wanted a sister to play jokes with and had no doubt that Hermione would be just that one day.

"Oh yeah - I meant to tell you about the corks." said Ron.
 

~~~~~~~~~~~~

When Ginny and Hermione went up to take their History lesson, Harry went with them to the first floor. He was going up to the Gryffindor reading room to study and finish a charms paper. He left them near the door to Binns' class.

"I'm just going to check that the seals on the old classrom are still working or we'll be back to using keys and I doubt anyone kept theirs." he told them as he wandered blindly off around the corridor, his attention deep inside his charms book. Harry was vaguely aware that this section of the corridor was deserted so he was astonished when he felt someone blunder into him so hard he staggered sideways against the corridor wall, dropping his books and papers.

"Ow! ... Wha..!" he cried, as he looked around to confirm there really was nobody about.

Sharpened reflexes drew out his wand in an instant. "Homenum Revelio!" Then, when nobody was revealed, "Specialis Revelio!"

Harry stared up and down the corridor rubbing his arm where he'd received the painful collision. "What was that?" thought Harry to himself as he gathered up his scattered books. "I'll have a word with George next time I'm in Hogsmeade to see if it's one of his joke spells."

Harry used his wand again and found the old classrom wards were still working fine. The room looked cold, dusty, and deserted. A chair was overturned. The unlit candles were burned down to stubs and needed replacing. A lot had happened since the last time they had used this room. He gazed around, remembering David Grey and all that had happened here. Harry pointed his wand at the fireplace.

"Incendio."

As a nice fire sprang up to warm and cheer the room he did the same to light a few candle stubs. He dragged six chairs around to complete the rough semi-circle in front of the hearth as they had had them before and finished off with "Scourgify!" addressed at the whole room. He watched as the gathered dust rose into the air like a dirty cloud for a few seconds then vanished. Dull brass candlesticks began to gleam in the candlelight and the colour of the upholstery of the old chairs suddenly became a more vivid red as the grime departed the fabrics into the void.

Harry noticed that some little pottery figures of unicorns and dragons and other creatures were stood upon the mantelshelf and paper cutout animals decorated the wall around it. He looked to the chair that Luna usually sat in - the second nearest to the mantelpiece on its right. There was a little table there and some scraps of parchment and a couple of books on top. Harry didn't disturb them. He knew they and the animals had not been present the last time they had all gathered together in this room. He pictured Luna coming up here all alone during the reign of the Carrows and Snape last year. He recalled his visit to the Lovegoods earlier that year and the fine gold writing on Luna's bedroom ceiling, 'friends . . . friends . . . friends'.

Harry felt sad that Luna's eccentric ways kept her somewhat apart; she had a good heart. His spirits were lifted a little when he recalled how she and Neville had been drawn together in their mind sessions. He pondered how that relationship was working out now. "They hadn't been actually hanging out together had they?" he wondered. He had been so pre-occupied with his own problems leading up to the destruction of Voldemort he had no idea. Perhaps this evening's session would shed light on how well they were getting along. She deserved someone to share her life and care for her.

Harry looked around, satisfied now that all was in order for the evening's meeting. He sighed and hoped that his suspicions were groundless and the room would not be needed again as he left. He had time to spare for some more study before this afternoon's defence class.
 

~~~~~~~~~~~~

Neville hesitated. As he descended the worn stone steps leading down into Room 3C he gazed outwards expecting bitter memories to arise. Here, the fraud Lockhart had swaggered. Another pretender, Crouch junior had deceived them and shown them cruel curses. Snape had been ... well, Snape: mysterious, bullying, terrifying. The blinkered, arrogant Umbridge had uselessly mis-taught her students and Carrow's dark attitude had taught the arts to match his sick mind. Only Lupin had inspired and helped his pupils. But none of those recollections came to Neville's mind. The room was bare, empty of furnishings except one old cabinet at the far wall and thus 3C seemed much larger than before. The few students already ahead of Neville: Seamus, Luna, Harry, Ginny, and others, were gazing around looking puzzled. Others, led by Ron and Hermione, coming down behind Neville were first pushing to get in, then themselves holding others up as they looked around at the unfamiliar layout.

The scrubbed light grey stonework arching overhead did not oppress or confine as it had seemed in previous years and the polished floorboards in the big open space seemed ready to dance upon. Indeed, Luna and Ginny were mock-waltzing together to Luna's "Tra-Lah-Lah, Lah-laaaaah." Ginny had just told her about the meeting of the six in the old classroom later that evening and Luna was excited and happy. Her blonde hair flung wide as she spun around and her odd taste in jewelry tossed and turned.

"Neville - think we might be doing some duelling?" called Harry from the middle of the floor, waving and thrusting a wandless arm to demonstrate.

"Looks likely" Neville shouted back amidst the growing hubbub and chatter as he went over to join him. He looked at Ginny and Luna dancing and wondered if he'd perhaps get a chance to speak to Luna here. Probably not. He wanted privacy and time. It would be awkward enough to explain his feelings had changed towards her. He still cared for Luna very, very much but his love for Hannah was ever-growing. "Where is Hannah?" he asked himself, turning around and looking at all the faces.

As the last of the students filed in, Neville saw Hannah amongst them. He had intended to save her a seat next to him but there were no seats - not even any desks but he gave her a wave to draw attention and she headed towards him. He began to realize this might be awkard with Luna in this same class.

Luna, seeing Neville meeting up with Hannah, fell silent, slowed her dance steps and hesitated. Ginny turned her away trying to think of something to distract Luna with. "Tonight..." she had begun but a new interest came at just the right time to produce a diversion. There had been speculation as to where the teacher was. Little knots of friends were calling to other groups to find out if anyone knew what was going on.

"It's an initiative test." proclaimed Seamus, "What's in the cabinet is obviously what we have to work out."

"Wait!" shouted Hermione as the nearest, Dean, was already slowly opening it.

A snarl immediately followed by a loud roar that they all felt bodily as well as heard, rumbled around the room as a great striped tiger burst from the cupboard pushing by Dean, knocking him to the floor and scattering screaming students in surging waves of confusion through the crowd. Huge jaws opened to threaten with its great white fangs - terrible ripping teeth to chill the heart of its victims. The cat's vivid orange and black striped body trembled with the shaking of its powerful muscles and its amber eyes glared and dominated. Shocked, Dean half lay, close to its awful claws. He could feel its body-heat, smell its odour. The cat's great head slowly turned back in his direction. It took a supreme effort of will for Dean to reach for his pocket as the beast roared again directly at him. It's hot breath stank; the mighty gape widened.

Then it was gone. As quickly as it had appeared it had vanished and there was stunned silence for a few seconds.

"Attention! All raise your wand arms please!" was voiced loudly from the doorway at the top of the stairs.

Professor Worley stood there arm outstretched, pointing, and visibly counting. Most of the former DA members had their wands raised; others had been still grasping them in their pockets but raised them when asked. Dean feebly held his wand up from the floor. It would have been shaking if his limbs had not gone numb with fear. Yet others had simply never thought of their wands. There was a tug on the closed door then a couple of loud knocks. Worley ignored it. Louder, heavier bangs sounded more angrily; someone was kicking the door now. Worley's counting arm jabbed wandlessly towards the door and a whispered spell silenced it.

"Nobody will come late to my lessons." she announced, then continued after a few seconds, "Well done, class. You've handled a bad scare very well. I wanted to test unprepared reflexes to extreme danger and I see many of you have had good practice. Lower your arms. Thank you - and ten points to Gryffindor for Mr. Thomas' immense self-control." She was genuinely pleased. Worley had heard good things about the DA and Harry Potter's on-the-ground instruction. She knew that few ordinary wizards, let alone schoolchildren, would have shown the presence of mind that most of this class had just shown.

She continued to survey the class from the top of the steps. Harry could see her short dark hair was rather scruffy and her face rather mannish - but she wasn't too unpleasant to look at. He estimated she was not as tall as himself or Ron and in her mid-thirties but there were plenty of tough worry lines in her face despite her smile. "A lot of people are like that these days" he reflected.

Worley stood squarely and returned everyone's stare without flinching. Very quickly she had established command and control of the class. She was always in control of herself too. She had found that tolerance, friendliness, and courtesy worked well to get the results she wanted with those she was instructing. Whether she was falsely manipulating people she was not sure herself.

"Can anyone tell me what that creature was?"

Hermione's hand was up first but Worley picked the only other one on offer.

"It might be a faux-boggart," suggested Luna, "but I don't know why it behaved itself so nicely."

"Nicely?" whispered Dean to Seamus as he dusted off his cloak, "I'd hate to see it when it's nasty."

"Correct. It is a faux-boggart that I have trained myself - or some of you would not be still in one piece." She eyed Pansy Parkinson and others who were nearest the door having been the quickest to stampede wandlessly in a panic.

"And what do we know about these creatures?" Worley looked around and seeing only the same two raised hands she selected Hermione this time. Was showing fairness just another aspect of her manipulativeness or was it natural to her? Or had it started as the former and ended as the latter over time? She scrutinised her own behaviour as strictly as she did her students.

Hermione recited what she knew, "The faux-boggart or stealth-dragon is neither a true boggart nor a dragon but its magic works in a similar way to the boggart. However, it does not respond or adjust to its victim's fears. Instead it can assume the form of almost any non-magical creature it feels will give it an advantage. It is a predator and it's natural shape is something like a large stocky hound with tusks and a mouth full of triangular, serrated teeth that inwardly is almost like a shark's."

"Thank you. Be prepared, I'll be using Fobey in different forms from time to time in training. Dark wizards can summon dark creatures so we need to have defences planned. But be assured that although normally very, very, dangerous, this one is always well-fed, magically restrained, and trained to feign attacks not to actually harm anyone - and I also have shields up - not only for your extra protection but so you don't injure or kill the creature itself. They are not easy to replace and train and I think judging from your lightning responses that another second or two and I'd be minus one faux-boggart." Worley smiled. As she descended the steps she flicked an arm and the rest of the furniture, old, time-worn desks and chairs, all creased and blackened by years of off-target spells, started to appear, jostling students aside as they moved into position.

"As you can see I'm using various charms and spells to make the most of this room. It's just about adequate for some physical duelling practice and the like when it's empty. Any questions?" she moved to her desk at the head of the class, "Yes Mr. Potter?"

"Can that creature assume human form?"

"Yes indeed, although not magical. Let me explain. We have heard from... Miss Granger isn't it? - that it can only appear as a non-magical creature. That is true in a manner of speaking. It can actually form itself as any creature but without the magical properties. It's only magical ability is to change physical shape and use the physical properties of that shape. So it might transform into a hippogriff but it cannot fly because a hippogriff relies on magic to fly. Similarly it might appear as a wizard with a wand but it could not cast a spell. Also its intelligence is limited to the animal - about that of an ape - so it cannot converse or interact in a humanly intelligent way. It simply mimics any creature it has ever seen to attack its intended prey. Now watch your fingers!"

As she was finishing speaking she was magically guiding some books and documents from the pile on her desk towards all the students. Some of these were thumping down rather heavily onto desks in front of students and it wasn't clear if the dust raised was from the desks or the old books. Pansy Parkinson sneezed as an extra set of books hovered for a moment over the empty desk beside her then moved over and dropped in her lap. She pushed these aside to the empty desk beside her with some annoyance.

"Where's Draco?" whispered Ron to Hermione at his side and Harry and Ginny at the next desk.

"I'm not sure whether he still goes with Parkinson. Must be he's growing up." snorted Ginny as she fumbled through the pile of books on her desk.

"I think this year he needs all the friends he can get. Beggars can't be choosers." said Hermione as she scrutinised some old yellow pages, "- as we muggle-borns say." she added to Ron's puzzled look, "Anyway, trust the books."

"Trust the books? Trust the books? What does that mean?" asked Ron.

"The guidance spell - clearly it is designed to reach its intended user so it must know Pansy will take the books to Draco."

"I wonder if that was him knocking on the door?" suggested Harry.

Ron digested this suggestion, "Hope he's always bloody late then."

"The dull yellow pamphlet is an overview of the classwork for this year and the big dark leather book is our main seventh year reference for defence against the dark arts. You can see it has sections for duelling, stealth, shielding and other protective measures; detection, deception, avoidance, counter-poisons, temporary field healings, and many others. Today we'll make a start with property-protecting wards: two-way, one-way, blockers, alerters, defenders, from simple to complex. This subject alone is extensive and there is more detail in that dark purple-like booklet." announced Worley. "You'll need to supplement this work in your spare time studies. Ask, ask, and ask me again, if there is anything you need help with. You will need a good grasp of each section by the end of the school year if you are to pass your NEWTS exams."

The rest of the lesson was not quite so exciting as the start but interesting enough. One highlight was that most of the pupils' faces temporarily turned blue - especially pansy's which practically glowed - and Worley explained about how even something as innocuous as dust might harbour dark magic. Clearly the new teacher liked to use demonstration to make a point rather than just words.

"We have five minutes. Any more general defence questions?" asked Worley, then seeing Ron's raised arm and his red hair, "Yes - Mr. Weasley is it?"

"Yes Professor. Is there any way to defeat fiendfyre?" asked Ron, "you know, to overcome it, block it, remove it or anything really?"

"No, I don't believe it's possible - you mean as a defence against a dark wizard? A very great wizard might possibly deflect it temporarily but fiendfyre is so dangerous that even the caster of the spell usually cannot control it very well if at all. A dark wizard would normally only use it if he himself can be sure of stopping it or at least be able to get well out of the way." Worley spoke thoughtfully, "Fortunately it's not often used because it is so unpredictable. I recommend the best defence is to get the hell away if possible."

The class half-smiled grimly and murmured somewhat worriedly.

"I once saw Professor Dumbledore rebound a fiery creature which I think was fiendfyre." said Harry solemnly without thinking, "It looked like it might be. It certainly came from a dark wizard."

The class fell silent. They knew which wizard he was talking about and some still shuddered a little to hear about him.

"Yes, Professor Dumbledore was a very great man and if anyone knew how to handle fiendfyre, it would be he."

"That's all for this lesson. Next time we shall be focusing on anti-apparition wards and alarm wards and hopefully a bit of duelling practice."

As the students walked out there was a general feeling among them that the defence class teacher promised to be one of the best they had had.


Chapter 3: Voldemort's Legacy
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That evening the five close Gryffindors made their way quietly to the first floor. Ron stopped dead at the corner of the dark corridor and backed up causing a log jam behind him. "Luna's been stopped." he whispered to the others. "Worley has caught her out after curfew. What do we do?" He looked at his watch. "It's only a minute after."

"Let's wait a little while." replied Harry, "Keep watch, Ron. Maybe Worley will just deduct her a few house points and leave her."
 

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"Name and house?" asked Professor Worley sternly. She flicked her lit wand and the light sphere floated free and high. She pocketed her wand and drew out notepad and pen with her freed hand.

"Lovegood, Ravenclaw." replied Luna timidly, not for herself but because she was so anxious to get to the meeting and also did not want to be instrumental in having the meetings banned.

"Lovegood you say?" asked Worley, startled. "You are ... Luna Lovegood?" She looked at the slender girl with the long straggly blond hair carefully.

"Yes Miss." replied Luna who was now even more worried.

"Sorry, Miss Lovegood. I don't yet know all the students by sight. It would be petty to apply the curfew to an honorary such as yourself. Your courage in the defence of Hogwarts and other battles is well known." Worley smiled and nodded her head with respect. "I'll carry on with my rounds and see you in our next class together. Don't stay up too late. Goodnight to you."

Worley walked off and the light chased and rejoined the tip of her newly-raised wand.

"Goodnight Professor." replied Luna. She stood staring after the teacher for a few seconds then decided she had better leave just in case. Hero or not, it would be strange to be standing around in a Hogwarts' corridor after curfew and not actually going anywhere and she daren't go straight into the old classroom; she did not want to draw attention to it. Luna felt she had little choice but to follow Worley as if she were heading to the Ravenclaw common room and wait for a chance to sneak back in a few minutes.
 

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"What they saying, Ron?" asked Ginny.

"I can't hear - but it looks like Worley's leading Luna back to her dorm. I guess she is in trouble. Hope she doesn't get detention."

"It's my damn fault." Harry grimaced, "I should have set the time earlier - I just didn't think. I'll apologize tomorrow."

"Nothing we can do about Luna now. Come on. We'll have to manage without her. We can sneak in now." said Ron.

They entered the old class room. Ron began testing the old door ward using a spell from the afternoon's defence lesson. It was also a good way to test the new spells that Worley had taught them. He wondered if he might even improve the ward security - but it had been more than good enough for their needs, mostly convenience. It recognized them all so they could just walk in but nobody else but an advanced wizard could break it.

Hermione was asking, "So what's this all about, Harry?" She was gesturing strongly to Ron to leave the door for now and join the discussion.

"I'd like us to quickly have a short mind session first. I want to check something and I don't want to put ideas in anyone's head. I want to see if anyone else sees anything unusual. Ron, would you lead the session as usual, please?"

"Sure." replied Ron.

Neville pulled his usual chair up close to the others. It wasn't essential but it helped them focus as a group. They all sat down and began the relaxing preparations and soon Ron was quietly chanting the spells to lead them into the mental realm. They were deeply into this, eyes closed, when Luna came back. She was surprised to find everyone had started. It was only just after nine. She wondered if they had forgotten about her. Her own chair had been pushed back out of the way and she felt that way herself - like she had been pushed out of the way.

Had Neville forgotten her too? Luna had so looked forward to being a part of this. She had been so happy to be part of the group. An unusual wave of loneliness passed over her. The young girl recalled that Neville's first thought on returning to Hogwarts was to speak to Hannah Abbott. Luna looked at her books and papers on the little table lost in shadow. Sadly she picked them up and crept out of the room and returned to her dormitory. She told herself she was just being silly but her heart would not listen.
 

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Outwardly the five were still, unmoving but inwardly they explored the endless resources of the mentasphere first presented to them by David Grey. It was the normal world but experienced completely differently. All mental life was there simply by thinking of it. It could never be defined in human language which is mostly limited to the spatial, physical, and visual world. It had to be felt.

How does one describe that which is indescribable in normal human language? To say the five witnessed a vast landscape of living entities and ideas might conjure up a vision of wide spaces populated with creatures. However, there were no spatial dimensions at all. All was substance - yet not physical substance. This was the substance of ideas, of knowledge. It might be said the realm consisted entirely of the consciousness of creatures and their attitudes, concepts, values, and impressions. There was no specific penetration of individual thought but rather an experience of the general way in which creatures are aware, perceive, and know.

In some ways the mentasphere was like imagination - yet vivid and tangible. There was no need to travel to Africa to see an elephant. Here, Africa was an idea, grand and complex, solid, substantial yes - but an idea. To behold an elephant - an actual elephant - one simply thought of it and observed. But most creatures could not observe you because like humans, their attention was completely absorbed in the physical sense of being.

The prominence of creatures was proportional to their intelligence and character not their size as seen by physical sense. Humans were giants here; trees mere wisps. Yet the idea of what a lowly plant is might be great even if its own sense was miniscule.

Most new knowledge came about through perceiving that which was related to what was being experienced. Occasionally discoveries came about spontaneously - something just simply occurred to the beholder.

Through it all, the five very experienced youngsters kept in touch by remaining always aware of each other. As other life attracted their attention they had learned from long practice to always keep some part of their mind ever-drawing back to the group - and most especially their partner if they had one. One could get lost in the mental realm just as one can get caught up in a daydream.

They communicated with ideas not by words. They had no verbal or visual thoughts here. They conveyed pure concepts to one another as needed - especially to keep them 'together'. David Grey had described this as 'hand-holding'. Most especially, Ron Weasley, as leader, was exceptionally good at holding them in touch and eventually drawing them out of the realm together.

For the young wizards and witches, special magical spells worked within this realm. They could not change factual ideas but they had been able in previous sessions to affect the balance of good and evil which in a way constituted the fabric of this place - or at least, pervaded it as an essential quality of its being.

Each experience of it was unforgettable. Because there was no work to be done here now they simply enjoyed it and observed for half an hour until Ron led them all out. They rarely spoke about the nature of the experience because it was so difficult to discuss. It remained unspoken but known to them all. But they did discuss the relevance of their experiences and excited chatter almost always livened up the old classroom when they ended a mental session and opened their eyes to physical sense again.

"That was great!" said Neville, "but it's not quite as exciting and vivid for me without Luna here. Her mind is just so inquisitive and rich in ideas. We always sparked off each other. Our..." Neville tailed off sounding rather thoughtful. Whatever the nature of his bonding - his sense of 'togetherness' with Luna in the mental realm had actually been - it had certainly been powerful and absolutely reliable and Neville had missed that.

"No sign of Voldemort." was the first thing Harry said, absorbed with his own concerns.

"Harry! He's dead for sure. Surely that's not what you..." began Hermione.

"No, no. I know. I already knew for certain he's dead. Fully, totally dead. About eight times dead actually. No, it was just instinct for me to look. I didn't really need verification but it was kind of satisfying anyway!" replied Harry.

"But something is wrong." muttered Ron.

"Yes, I noticed too." said Neville.

Harry waited, waited for them to say it. He had confirmed it himself but he wanted them to say it.

"The substance is still unbalanced. There is still some evil outweighing good. What can it mean?" pondered Ron.

"Harry? What is it that you know? What can you tell us?" asked Ginny.

Harry sighed. "I've not mentioned this before because so much was taking place at the time. I was kind of preoccupied."

"When was that?" asked Ginny.

"When I surrendered to Voldemort in the Forbidden Forest."

Apart from the crackling and sparking of the log fire there was silence in the room and they were all very attentive. They had all heard what happened but perhaps not every detail and it was not a subject any of them had wished to pressure Harry about.

"I knew I was going to die. As the death curse hit me a whole lifetime of events appeared to me. It wasn't a rapid sequence; all of it, every event, happened simultaneously in a split second. It was too much to take in. Then I ... then I died."

There was still complete silence for many seconds. Then Hermione spoke.

"It's not uncommon Harry. Many people have reported that their whole life flashed before their eyes in extreme danger or in a near-death experience."

"Yes, but it ... it wasn't my life I saw, Hermione. It was Voldemort's. Remember, part of his soul died within me too and he collapsed temporarily. I guess it was his near-death experience." explained Harry.

After a long pause Neville asked, "What did you see, Harry?"

"Almost all of it is forgotten - just fragments; nothing we don't already know or unimportant. But there was one thing... at the time I ... had that experience with Dumbledore and then that final duel - I wasn't myself really. I guess I mean I was totally focussed on what was happening at the time and no time to consider anything else."

"Yes, of course. It's understandable you wouldn't think about that ... that near-death thing again." suggested Hermione.

"Exactly. Oh - I'd thought of it casually a few times much later but it seemed unreal. Then when Malfoy said this morning, "It's not over ... Not for you nor all your mudblood and muggle friends!" it reminded me of something. Something that if true would affect all muggles. In fact probably all witches and wizards too."

"What was it Harry?" asked Ginny very quietly.

A candle on the mantelshelf exhausted the last of its wax. It sputtered and flared for a few seconds, then went out.

"He cursed everything, Ginny. Voldemort cursed the whole world."


Chapter 4: Luna's Awakening
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As Luna made her way back to Ravenclaw Tower she was being extra cautious. Despite being an honorary she did not wish to take advantage or attract attention so she went down a particularly dark corridor heading west. As she did so someone pushed her from behind and she stumbled forwards. She twisted around quickly and uttered the wand lighting charm to see who was playing the prank but could see nobody, nobody was visible that is.

"Harry! I know it's you." Luna smiled, not taking offence, inwardly pleased that it must be Harry, invisibly cloaked. She felt sure it could only be Harry who must have come after her to ask her back to the meeting. Luna reached out but only grasped air. "Harry?" There was silence. Luna waited but there was nothing further so she resumed her original way even more sadly towards the Ravenclaw common room. She was used to being the target of all kinds of practical jokes but the thought that Harry might torment her weighed heavily on her mind.
 

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While the group were digesting what Harry had said, he had noticed Luna's books and papers were gone. He let out a long sigh.

"Luna must have come back into the room." he groaned as he stood up and looked around. "Look, her books are gone." He looked at Neville.

Neville shook his head, "They were right there on her table. I remember moving it back."

"She's my friend. I should explain to her." said Ginny, "She'll be disappointed. She was looking forward to this."

"I ought to apologize. I arranged the time..." began Harry.

"I need to speak to her anyway. It's important. I've not really had a chance since..." cut in Neville.

"Only Hermione is likely to be able to figure out how to get into the Ravenclaw common room." said Ron.

"We can't all march into the Ravenclaw common room!" said Hermione in exasperation.

Ginny looked at Neville who returned her gaze. Then they nodded at each other and Neville spoke, "I'll make an opportunity somehow tomorrow morning. I'll tell her you're sorry, Harry and erm... talk to her and... explain things."

"No, I'd better come with you." groaned Harry resignedly.
 

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Luna Lovegood lay on her bed thinking. Her eyes were a little sore with weeping but she was determined to overcome her sorrow. In earlier years she had accepted her isolation. Her aloneness was only partly loneliness. But Dumbledore's Army had changed all that. She had not only belonged to the group of fighters but felt she was wanted. It was like having friends. And Ginny Weasley really was her friend she felt sure. Luna could see that Ginny was now spending most of her spare time with Harry but still... there had been Neville. When he had partnered her in the mind sessions a couple of years back it was clear there was a rapport between them. This closeness was reinforced when the DA resisted the Carrows last school year. With Harry, Ron, and Hermione away, this brought her even closer to Neville and Ginny as the leaders of the fight. But when she didn't return after Christmas it seemed understandable that Neville would be working more closely Hannah in the DA and they would be drawn closer together. Perhaps they even felt she had deserted them at a time of difficulty and peril.

Luna sighed at what might have been. Then she shook herself hard mentally. "No!" she told herself, "They really are my friends. I'm just being foolish." Yet still she wondered why she did not feel it and why she was hurting so much. Tonight was too painful. How she had rejoiced when Ginny had told her the original six were meeting again in the old classroom. Within the mental realm was the only experience she had when she truly felt at the centre of companionship and not just an outsider. All was so clear there. So to see them in session, to see Neville in particular, without her, was especially hard to take. Being alone might be lonely but friendship could be more painful it seemed.

"No!" again she said to herself. "It's not friendship that is painful but wanting friends, trying to make friends, trying to get friendship instead of... instead of giving it." Luna startled herself with this realization which she had not verbalized before even though perhaps she instinctively lived it to a great extent without being aware of it.

Luna knew now why she had been reasonably happy when she first came to Hogwarts: she had accepted herself as an outsider and did not fight to overcome it. She had tried to be helpful and considerate to others, to support them when needed, but she had not struggled to get anything from anyone, not even friendship.

An owl hooting outside as it flew up to the nearby owlery brought a slight smile back to Luna's face. Her love of magical animals was the one thing that was always constant in her life. Animal friends could always be relied upon. They never forgot her or laughed at her as many of the other Hogwarts' students did. And she felt fulfilled when she was with creatures or learning about them. Luna stared at the canopy above her bed as a great realization dawned on her. This was the true purpose and meaning in her life. Probably she was never meant to be a party person, a society girl. Perhaps she was never meant to have friends. Why be concerned if she was not accepted? She would devote her life to studying the beautiful magical creatures she loved.

Luna's thoughts drifted to imagining herself travelling the world, exploring and discovering all kinds of wondrous animals and birds. She visualized herself making great discoveries and writing huge books that would dazzle everyone with their splendid descriptions. Very soon she was peacefully asleep.
 

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Luna awoke before dawn and considered the new day that was about to begin. The Ravenclaw girls' dormitory was still very dark and disorienting. It was puzzling how short this last school year had seemed but now it was over and she could begin her new career. She was soon packing her travel bag leaving her trunks to follow later and, deciding not to awaken any of her sisters who were all still sleeping, she put on her big travelling cloak and made her way out to begin her holiday. She paused, confused for a few moments, wondering if she were starting her new job or going on holiday.

"It's both!" she smiled to herself and, pulling up her hood for warmth against the fresh autumn morning air, she proceeded down and out of the castle towards the Forbidden Forest.

She considered whether she should swim across the lake but could not remember if she knew how to swim or not. She spent some time waving her wand dreamily trying to build a bridge before recalling that she was supposed to be going to the forest not across the lake. She paused and looked at the black sky which was just beginning to lighten in the east over the treetops. She stopped again. Was she leaving school or walking backwards towards it? it seemed to be further away than when she started so it was likely that she was leaving. She took one cautious step forward and then took a step backwards. They did seem different but which she was doing before was not clear to her. Luna's face lit up as she thought of an infallible solution. She turned around to face the castle and began to walk backwards. She felt certain this procedure must cancel out any doubt about where she was going.

Her belief was reinforced when she saw the first trees of the forest passing her on both sides and the light started to grow darker beneath the thick branches and red-brown leaves above her.

"If the trees are going towards the school then there would be no room for me anyway." she thought happily. She might not have been so happy if she had known that eyes were watching her carefully from behind and other eyes were watching from in front.
 

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"Harry, you look awful!" said Ron as he struggled out of bed the next morning.

"I feel it." groaned Harry, "I'm feverish and nauseus and I've got a headache, backache, toothache, earache, stomachache, and a sore throat. I'm itching and aching all over."

"You've got boils all over too by the looks of it." said Ron.

"Is this a ruse to get out of your apology to Luna?" grimaced Neville from across the dormitory, "Guess I'm on my own then."

"Ron, tell Ginny to keep away until I've seen Madame Pomfrey at least. I don't want her to catch this." said Harry as he struggled into his day clothes and hobbled off to the hospital wing.
 

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Neville Longbottom sighed. Despite his growing maturity he was finding that girls seemed more difficult to deal with than Voldemort. He had been relieved that Luna Lovegood was not present at breakfast in the Great Hall because he did not wish to speak to her with Hannah Abbott present. He now had an unspoken understanding with Hannah but he did not feel he wanted to have to explain to her about Luna. Yet here he was in the Care of Magical Creatures class and Luna was nowhere to be seen.

"Surely Luna never misses these classes." thought Neville as he stared at the pumpkin patch. A small group of students had been sitting silently waiting and observing for the last twenty minutes of the lesson. Hagrid had explained that he felt sure there was at least one colossus worm in there somewhere but they are rarely seen because they only surface when it is absolutely quiet. Even a whisper would be enough to drive them further underground. This was just the sort of creature that Luna would love to see he thought so Neville was puzzled at her absence.

Neville managed to mouth silently at Michael Corner "Where - is - Luna?" but he could not understand the lengthy lip movements in the reply.

After a few false alarms, Hagrid gave up on the worm. "Well one you've learned - they're sneaky little beggars!" he announced - then added, "Might need a bit o' book work to supplement today's lesson; see what you can find out. Yes, that oughta do it."

He set the students some research homework among the books in the school library. At the end of the class, Michael hurried off with most of the other students to be first to get the best books on worms available so Neville lost sight of him for a time but managed to catch up with him in the corridor outside the library as Michael dashed out with a triumphant look on his face.

"Got one!" Michael exclaimed, holding up a tattered copy of "Worming, A Complete Guide" like a captured flag.

"Michael, are you sure... Er... Never mind. Listen what were you saying about Luna earlier?" asked Neville

"What's with you and Luna?" asked Michael inquisitively. He had a big grin on his face but he was looking at the worn cover of his book.

"Nothing, but I haven't seen her all morning. I mean I was surprised she wasn't at 'Creatures'."

"All I know is one of the girls said she wasn't at breakfast." muttered Michael, losing interest and opening up his worming book fondly.

"I know that but..."

Michael looked up. "If you know that... So, you are interested then?" prompted Michael with an even bigger grin.

"No, well yes, No - not like that. I..."

"Hey Padma!" Michael had just spotted Padma Patil and her sister crossing the adjacent corridor. "Where's Luna? Neville's desperate! What were you saying..."

Padma paused in her stride, then seeing Neville she came towards them. "Only that I don't think she was around when we got up this morning. I think she was crying last night. I heard her crying. She went to bed early."

"Didn't you ask..." began Neville.

"She's not my friend is she!" cut in Padma and marched off.

Michael's attention was buried in his worming book again but there was concern on his face. "This book. It's..."

Neville ran after Padma. "Where would I find Professor Flitwick?" shouted Neville.

"How should I know?" retorted Padma and giggled with her sister who glanced back at Neville.

Neville was becoming concerned now as he followed them on his way to his next class. As he tried to re-focus on his lessons he suddenly realized what the girls were laughing about. They were all heading towards their charms class - taught by Flitwick. Neville ran ahead of the twins who shouted, "Let us know if you find Professor Flitwick, Neville!"

As Neville entered Flitwick's classroom he saw Hermione, Ron, and Ginny just ahead of him. "No sign of Luna. I'm starting to worry. Have you seen her, Ginny?"

"No. Why? Is she..." began Ginny, looking alarmed.

Neville went straight up to Professor Flitwick who was sorting out his papers and books as the students filed into the room.

"Professor, have you seen anything of Luna Lovegood? I'm rather worried. Is she ill?" asked Neville.

"Lovegood? No, as far as I know Miss Lovegood is not ill but... Why do you ask?"

"She wasn't at breakfast nor in our Creatures class." said Neville.

"Attention Class! Please study Chapter eighteen of your Advanced Charms Book Three for the next few minutes and no noise please!" Flitwick called out then turning to Neville said, "Come with me."

He led Neville towards the headmistress's office at a brisk rate. As he strode out he asked if Neville could send a patronus to Madame Pomfrey in the hospital wing but Neville shook his head.

"Ah Filch!" called out Flitwick as he spotted the caretaker coming towards them with a scowl on his face, "Can you run along to the hospital wing and let me know if Miss Lovegood is there?"

"No need to do that Professor." responded Filch, replacing his scowl with a sneer.

"Why not? What do you know?" asked Flitwick.

"Seen her myself this morning early leaving didn't I?" Filch was obviously pleased with himself.

"Leaving? What do you mean? Hogwarts you mean? How could she be leaving? We've barely started the new year! How do you know she was leaving?" flustered Flitwick.

"She was all cloaked up and carrying her travel bag. I'd say she was leaving." smirked Filch.

"But where? Leaving to go home?" interjected Neville.

"Forbidden Forest is where she was headed. No doubt about that." Filch grinned, even more pleased with himself.

"How do you know it was her? I mean if she was cloaked it could have been anybody..." asked Neville before Flitwick could get in a word.

"Seen her face didn't I?"

"Mr. Filch, how could you see her face if she was hooded and walking away from you to the forest?" asked the professor doubtfully.

"Because she was walking backwards." exulted Filch, delighted at being one up on a Hogwarts' teacher.

Flitwick and Neville stared. Flitwick recovered first. "Why didn't you report this? A student out of bounds, out of curfew, out of her senses by the sound of it, going unaccompanied into the Forbidden Forest?"

"Honorary student isn't she Professor? Honorary's what's not my business seeing as how they can do what they like can't they? I have my 'structions alright." Filch was triumphant. In one sentence he had in his own mind denounced the new honorary system and was now two up on a teacher.

Flitwick stared for a few moments then said, "Get Hagrid to organize a search party at once please. I'll speak to the headmistress."

Filch wandered of muttering to himself.

Flitwick turned to Neville, "It's rather hopless I'm afraid. Chances of finding a single person lost in the Forbidden Forest are very slim."
 

~~~~~~~~~~~~

Seraphina sniffed the air. It was not any kind of human sniff. Fairies do not have the same physical senses as wizards or muggles at all - at least, the kind of fairy that was Seraphina. It is not generally known that apart from common fairies there are three main fairy types of the higher-magicks. None of these have any particular human name because as said, they are rarely known. The first might be called the wise fairies. These are very intelligent and knowledgeable of a great many things; the other fairies come to them for guidance. The second kind some call the fun fairies because they are mostly at play: dancing, joking, or just frolicking around harmlessly together. It is their laughter which you mostly hear - if you hear anything at all - when you think you hear tinkling bells in the woods or sense sounds glistening at Christmas. The third type are the love fairies. They live entirely for others and absolutely everything they do, every action, is for those who need help, most especially children and those very few who are still open to fairy-sense. Seraphina was a love fairy. And she sensed a child needing help.

Now Luna Lovegood was fast becoming a young woman but although she had her own wisdom, in many ways she was quite childlike. And now she was frightened, badly frightened. What little light there was in the deep forest was already beginning to fade as night approached. She found herself in a terrifying place. She was surrounded by trees but she could not decide if they were moving around her or she was moving through them or indeed if that was the same thing. There were many creatures, small and large, watching and waiting with only their eyes visible just beyond the nearest trees. They seemed to be forever detached from her yet attached at the same time for whenever she moved they moved too. And they were talking to her constantly in the following manner:

"You betrayed us. We were your friends. But you chose human companions. And now you have none. You do not even have a name. You do not deserve a name."

This experience was an unbearable hell for Luna who no longer knew where she was going or where she had come from or even who she was. She only knew she was someone, something, utterly, utterly, alone. She had walked all day and was very tired and hungry. Her cloak, torn by numerous brambles and thorns, did little to shield her from the cold wind.

It was this child-fear that Seraphina was drawn to like a mother to her baby's cries. As she flew high through the trees she saw Luna from a distance and knew her at once; knew her need was great. Not wishing to startle her, Seraphina alighted on a broad leaf in a small clearing ahead on the girl's route and waited.

To Luna, her endless maze of torments seemed unchanging, so the faint glimmer, a small, pale blue light away in the direction she was moving, was a great beacon of hope. It was more than light. It was more than hope. It was everything. It was an as yet unknown meaningfulness in the midst of madness. She was drawn on and on and her horror was diminishing as the light became more visible to her. There was something there; something there in the light. She began to discern, or she fancied she did, a tiny figure. And there was a shining. Even within the beautiful light there was yet another shiningness so wondrous that Luna's eyes were wide and her mouth open in astonishment. It was not her imagination. There was a tiny person, slender and graceful, winged by shimmering iridescence: yellows and greens and blues and reds. It was a young maiden with floating hair of night and robed in whiteness. The gentle tenderness of her eyes was an inner light that blew away the last of Luna's fears and confusion and she fell to her knees in awe at the mother-love before her.

Time is of no consequence in these moments. Whatever was conveyed between the two of them was not done so by mortal words. Luna knew that the images and sounds she saw and heard were not sensed with eyes and ears but formed in them afterwards from her inner experience. Cold and hunger were driven away as naught and with them went something else. A confusing curse, impotent before fairy-magic, was sent to oblivion and all was clear again. The forest was no longer a place of terror. The little clearing became an intimate room, as comfortable and familiar as a child's nursery. Luna swept her hands over the carpet of friendly leaves, lay down into their warming blanket-embrace and slept deeply.



Chapter 5: Good News, Bad News
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Harry Potter was bored, worried, frustrated, and still sore and aching. He had been laying in a hospital bed all day and only Ginny had come to visit briefly to tell him Luna had 'run away' as she put it and there were a lot of people out looking for her, including Ron, Hermione, and Neville, and she was off to join one of the search parties herself. He was left with only an occasional glimpse of Madame Pomfrey for company until evening when it was too dark to continue searching. It was a relief when Ginny got back to see him.

"You look exhausted, Gin," Harry croaked hoarsely, "Take a seat. Did they find her?"

"No. Someone saw some shreds of fabric on a thorn bush that might have been ripped from her cloak but otherwise there was no sign of her at all. Harry, I'm really scared for her."

"Why would she run away though, Ginny? I know she might have been upset because of the meeting but..."

"I think it's Neville. Must be I think. She and Neville got rather close during the last year while we in the DA were all resisting the Carrows. After she was taken by the Death Eaters, Neville seemed more drawn to Hannah Abbot. He's not really had a chance to explain to Luna. Neville stopped out longer than anyone today. He feels really bad about this." Ginny looked upset.

"It'll be alright, Gin," whispered Harry, reaching out for her hand. "Luna has spent more time than anyone, apart from Hagrid, in or near the forest. She may be depressed but she is knowledgeable about what animals and plants to avoid."

"Yes, but only in the fringes of the woods in the daytime - she's never gone deeply into the woods on her own. And now it's completely dark." she began to cry.

Harry sat up in bed and pulled Ginny to him to hold her for a while. "Madame Pomfrey thinks I might be OK tomorrow. I was wondering if I might fly a broomstick slowly through the forest. Anyone tried that today?"

"Not as far as I know. Probably no advantage avoiding trees except for a really good flyer. I think I might be good enough; I've dodged enough bludgers. Can we go together for safety? Ron is a good flyer but probably he would prefer to stay on the ground with Hermione. There's Katie and..."

"Cho." Harry finished for her.

"Today DA members kept in touch using our DA galleons. We kept in groups and marked our paths with glow charms. Any problems we were to send up red sparks or green if we found Luna. We used neither." Ginny was speaking for the sake of speaking - giving her mind something to do.

"We'll find her. Don't worry." said Harry reassuringly.
 

~~~~~~~~~~~~

The next morning at the first trace of light in the east, Neville and Hannah were the first pair to enter the forest but the other parties followed quickly after. Hagrid had organized various groups and Professor McGonagall was keeping traces on everyone for extra safety.

"What's the best strategy do you think?" Katie Bell was asking the group of flyers but mainly Harry.

"Don't know. The walkers are keeping each other in sight horizontally. I was thinking each pair - one flies high and one very low keeping each other in sight one above the other. The high one gets a longer view but the lower might spot a track or something on or near the ground." replied Harry. "The high ones might also keep the other pairs in view just above the tree tops."

"I'm not sure we'll see much up there." said Cho, "I guess we'll just have to try out what works."

Cho Chang was right. The high view was intermittent. Sometimes there was a good long view where the gaps between trees were a little wider but other times the high flyer could see almost nothing but leaves. Ginny had set out high initially pairing with Harry but soon she came down to just below the thickest foliage and off to one side of Harry and went high now and again where there was room.

After about only an hour Ginny was screaming down at Harry, "I see green sparks! Green sparks! Head north! I'll keep them in sight."

Harry placed a glow charm to mark where they had reached heading east just in case this was a false alarm and turned his broomstick north, keeping Ginny in sight above and ahead of him.

It was Hannah who had first spotted Luna walking almost directly towards her from the east and shouted to Neville who was to her south at an angle. She raised her wand and sent up a huge shower of green sparks as she ran to meet Luna and offered her water flagon.

"Are you OK? Are you hurt?" asked Hannah, looking with dismay at Luna' muddy cloak torn ragged and numerous scratches on her hands and face.

Luna looked a little bewildered to see Hannah here but was smiling and gladly drank some water. "Just a little - but I'll be alright. Thank you."

Neville came running up gasping for breath and stared at the state in which he saw Luna - then he was searching through his bag and dragged out a big clump of white dittany he had gathered and wrapped in an old sleeve dampened in spring water. "This will take out the sting." he said as he applied it to the worst part of her face and Luna took it from him gratefully.

"I'm alright really, but thank you - it is soothing." said Luna, "Are you out for a walk?"

Neville and Hannah stared then Neville said, "There are dozens of us out searching for you Luna. All your friends, some other volunteers, a couple of aurors and some of the teachers. We were worried about you. How did you manage... I mean... all night out in the dark?"

"I... I didn't realize anyone had noticed I was gone..." Luna was only just realizing the effects of what she had done. "It was foolish of me."

"Can you walk OK Luna? Are you tired?" asked Neville.

"I slept well in a big pile of leaves," explained Luna, "so I'm not sleepy but I'm beginning to get an appetite for breakfast!"

"Take my arm anyway. Lean on me." offered Neville.

"You are kind but I'll be alright." She turned to Hannah and said meaningfully. "He's a good man, Hannah."

"Luna, I've been trying to find a chance to explain... About last year I mean. After you were taken... Hannah and I... We..." began Neville.

"It's alright Neville, truly it is. I was a little sad at first but now I can see it's wonderful how it has worked out." Luna linked arms between Neville and Hannah and they began the walk back to Hogwarts.
 

~~~~~~~~~~~~

On her return to Hogwarts, Luna apologized saying that she had set out early to study some forest creatures before breakfast and lost herself among the trees. She regarded her experience with Seraphina as almost sacred and did not wish to share it. And who would believe Looney Lovegood anyway? Having no explanation for how a Confundus charm could have removed itself she kept quiet about that too. Professors McGonagall and Flitwick were rather annoyed with her and the trouble she had caused and fifty house points were deducted from Ravenclaw and a detention given but privately they were both relieved nothing worse had happened to Luna. A few more hours and they would have been preparing to send a message to Luna's father.

When she had awoken in the forest that morning Luna had been alone but had no trouble knowing what to do. She knew that even with an overcast sky that it was brighter to the east early in the day so she simply walked in the opposite direction. Her mind was clear and without concern as she pondered all that Seraphina had imparted to her. She knew now why so little was known about the higher fairies and she planned to rectify that as part of her life's work. Whether she was a changed person she did not know but she certainly felt different about herself. There was a certainty, a meaning, to her outlook and she was content.
 

~~~~~~~~~~~~

"Come in. Yes, what is it, Mr. Longbottom?" asked the headmistress.

"It's Muggle Studies, Professor. The kids were..." began Neville.

"Don't worry." interjected McGonagall.

"...subjected to all kinds of evil nonsense from the Carrows. We really need..." continued Neville.

"Yes, I know and..." McGonagall tried to stop Neville but he had rehearsed his petition and was in full flow.

"... a new teacher for Muggle Studies even for the..." persisted Neville.

"Relax, Mr. Longbottom, I've already appointed a new teacher to give Muggle Studies instructions part-time at least." McGonagall finally cut in.

"...younger ones even though..." Neville paused as he finally absorbed what the headmistress was saying. "You have?"

"Yes, and we shall be temporarily breaking with tradition to also include some basic instruction to second years who were so badly misinformed last year. I don't want them to continue with that nonsense in their heads about muggles being filthy and ignorant and inferior and all the rest of it."

"That's good news!" enthused Neville, relieved that another wrong was going to be set to rights.

"For now it will not be a full course but at least we can undo the harm that was done last year. The teacher worked here a couple of years ago but is busy with other things so until we can get a full-time teacher, Muggle Studies will be included with General Magical Knowledge. Although Muggle Studies is not strictly speaking a magical subject at all of course but..."

"Professor Bingley!" exclaimed Neville, "She's coming back?"

"Yes Professor Bingley has kindly agreed to fill in the partial vacancy for now. There will only be one class a week for each year - some years may double up - and it will be optional of course for honorary students - they have enough on their plate already."

"I think you'll find they'll make time!" said Neville excitedly, "Can I tell everyone or is this..."

"Yes, it's no secret. I'll be announcing it at dinner anyway."

"Thanks Professor!" exclaimed Neville excitedly as he dashed out and down the stairs from the headmistress's office, tripping over as he did so.

McGonagall's half smile turned grim as she heard the bumping and yelling down the stairs. She sighed, sent her patronus to fetch Madame Pomfrey and went to investigate. Neville lay head-wise down the stairs groaning in pain. "Mr. Longbottom! It is wise to take care on the stairs and not run about like a first year." chastised McGonagall.

She waved an investigative wand over his twisted limbs and declared, "I detect at least a couple of fractures. Lie still. Madame Pomfrey should be here shortly to check more thoroughly."

"Why is it always me?" moaned Neville, but there was a forced grin on his face as he said it.
 

~~~~~~~~~~~~

Now, along with Ginny, it was Harry's turn to visit a patient instead of being visited and, remembering his own boredom, he had brought plenty of books and old Prophets and Quibblers for Neville to read as well as long-chews and other confections. He winced when he saw the bottle of Skele-Gro on the side table. "That bad huh?"

"Kneecap totally smashed for one thing. It'll take all day to re-grow." grumbled Neville but he was brightening up as he flipped through the books and newspapers Harry had brought along.

"Listen, do you think you'll be OK tonight or shall we make the next meet tomorrow night?" asked Harry.

"Better make it tomorrow. Luna's OK with me now but I don't want any excuse not to be there - and make it say, 8:00pm eh?" suggested Neville with a wry smile.

"Sure, I can catch up on my studies after." said Harry with a grin.

Ginny asked, "What did you actually say to Luna? She seems bright and cheerful. I thought she'd be... Well, I didn't press her why she went into the forest but I'm not convinced by that excuse are you?"

"I didn't say anything special. She seemed already happy when we met her - well, rather battered, scratched, bruised, a little weak and hungry - but not mournful at all. She accepted... I wondered if she'd just needed time to think on her own and came to accept that Hannah and I were together now. She thinks it's great which is a big relief to me."

"Which would be why she said it. Still, that's good. If she's over it I mean." mused Ginny, "I won't ask her till way in the future what her thinking was. I hope one day she..." she stopped.

"What?" she said to Harry who was looking at her and smiling. He just took her hand affectionately in his.

"Stop that!" it was Madame Pomfrey who was coming towards them.

Harry and Ginny looked over at her in astonishment but Madame Pomfrey was looking at Neville.

"Stop that reading at once."

Neville looked astounded. "I'm only glancing through them. What's wrong?"

"I discovered something else when I examined you and I've had to look it up because it was so unusual." Madame Pomfrey paused, "Can you see alright to read Mr. Longbottom?"

"Of course. I can still see reasonably well even in this gloom and once you light the candles this evening..."

"It's mid-afternoon, Mr. Longbottom. It's not dark yet at all. I'm afraid you may be losing your sight."




Author's Notes



Comments and reviews are welcome and very encouraging. Thank you.
:)
 

- Hippothestrowl



Chapter 6: The Travelling Curses
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Ron stared in disbelief and sank down into one of the well-worn leather armchairs in the Gryffindor common room.

"It must be really serious if Madame Pomfrey is sending him to St. Mungos." he said.

Harry looked slowly around at the wide-eyed faces and came to rest on the empty sofa where Neville often sat. Everyone had stopped what they were doing, their study books pushed aside when he had told them the news. Everyone had laughed earlier as they heard how he had fallen down the headmistress's stairs. Broken bones were daily fare for quidditch players and usually resolved in the hospital wing within a day or so. But now they had heard Neville was losing his sight and was at St. Mungos; this was unusual - the unknown, and they were more sombre.

Dean tried to brighten the atmosphere a little, "There are a lot of smart healers at Mungos - they'll know what to do. They'll have him seeing good as ever."

"When will we know... Are some of you... Who's going to visit him?" asked Seamus tentatively. He had come through a tough year with Neville's support and it had brought them closer together. "I can get a break tomorrow and go if anyone is..."

"His gran will be there and - Oh - anyone told Hannah? Hermione was hesitant, "I think if anyone goes she... I think it might be good on the first day if just one of us goes. I don't know."

"I'll go and speak to her right now - and Luna too." said Ginny, "see what Hannah wants to do. I'll go with her to Mungos if I can."

Ginny started, paused then went across to the table near to Neville's chair and picked up his favourite Herbology book. She started out again, deep in thought trying to think of anything else that they could take. Then she stopped again, turned around and put the book back with a sigh. She looked at one or two people with a grimace to see they understood then resumed her journey to tell the girls.
 

~~~~~~~~~~~~

The mood over the Gryffindor breakfast table was grim the next morning. Ginny was absent having got permission to go with Hannah Abbott to visit Neville yesterday and they had stayed overnight with his grandmother. But the topic turned to other, even more serious matters.

"Harry, we have to talk. We can't keep putting it off. How can Voldemort curse the whole world. It's impossible." Hermione kept her voice low.

"I'm not putting it off Hermione!" replied Harry rather curtly, then more gently, "We want all six of us in the discussion and frankly there is always something making that difficult. Ginny and Neville aren't here. Luna is over at the Ravenclaw table..."

"Yes, but is there anything else you can remember - something we can investigate - anything at all?" Hermione was exasperated and frustrated. This affected everyone. This affected her family. She needed something to get her teeth into - or rather her agile reasoning mind. Ron looked concernedly at Hermione but waited for Harry. He had not yet realized the implications of a world curse.

"Well, along with the general idea of cursing the world there were just impressions of the world itself - different views of it, countryside and all that. I got a sense of desolation, desert heat, rocks - there was one mountain I saw clearly. I can still see it in my mind's eye. But I have no idea if it has any connection with the curse."

"Are you sure about that Harry? Why would all those things come together in your memory?" said Hermione.

"OK, OK. I mean I don't see any connection but yes, they were all kind of together in the same thinking if you see what I mean."

"Not really." said Ron but continued, "It's not much to go on is it anyway? There must be zillions of mountains. What did the mountain look like?"

"Just a mountain. I dunno. They all look the same to me." Harry draw a triangle in the air with his forefinger. Oh and it was black and grey rocks - well I guess all mountains are. Black with grey rocks streaked down the middle." Harry was trying to visualize it but that is all he could remember.

"Cone shaped you mean?" Hermione looked at Harry and saw his slow nod so continued,"They're usually volcanoes I think." said Hermione. "If I found a picture, do you think you could identify it?"

"Brilliant Hermione! Yes, I can see it in my mind. I'm sure if I could actually see a picture I would know it." exclaimed Harry.

"My dad loves to travel. We've often gone abroad for holidays. He has lots of geography books and things like that." said Hermione proudly, and with excitement in her voice, "I'll send him an owl and apparate back from Hogsmeade next time I can get out - perhaps this dinner time or tomorrow."

"Well that's a start." said Ron, "Can I come with you, Hermione? See your mum and dad again?"

"Of course you can, silly!" said Hermione and leaned over and gave him a quick peck on the cheek. "Is there some reason you want my mum and dad to get to like you?"

"Steady on, 'mione!" said Ron, looking around to see if anyone had noticed. He finished his last few mouthfuls of bacon quickly and pushed his plate back as a distraction. Harry grinned at them both. When there were only the three of them together it was like they were just young friends again. He still hadn't quite got used to the new relationships and it was fun. He wished Ginny was there.

As other well-used cutlery clattered onto emptied breakfast plates and bowls around the Great Hall, and as students were beginning their slow walk out, Professor McGonagall came over to the Griffyndor table looking rather ominous.

"You'll be pleased to hear that the first reports we have from St. Mungos are encouraging." she told them all. "Nothing conclusive yet - no actual improvement - but they think they know what the problem is and are working to fix it. The hospital will tell me when there are any developments."

A flurry of questions from several in the group were immediately cut short by McGonagall. "Mr. Potter, I wish to see you in my office right now and can you find Miss Lovegood and bring her too?" she turned and looked around at the Ravenclaw table.

"Ah there she is - Miss Lovegood! ... My office please. Now." she called as she spotted Luna just leaving her table.
 

~~~~~~~~~~~~

As Harry and Luna followed their headmistress into her office they saw the new teacher, Professor Bingley already inside. They greeted each other with smiles as McGonagall took her seat. It was good to see Bingley again. Her General Magical Knowledge class had been very popular a year or two back. In particular, Bingley took Harry's hand warmly for a few moments and looked gratefully into his eyes without speaking. She had not seen him since before Voldemort's downfall and well knew that everyone owed Harry a great debt.

"Miss Lovegood, can you explain why you were walking backwards into the Forbidden Forest the other day?" asked the headmistress then added, "I mean specifically backwards."

Luna hesitated but decided she could not openly lie about it. "I was under a curse, a confusing charm or something like that."

McGonagall and Bingley looked at each other then McGonagall asked, "Is that what caused you to go into the forest? Is that what caused you to walk so deeply into the forest?"

"Yes Professor. When I awoke I half thought I was at home - but not my real home - a dream home. I had lots of sisters all still fast asleep. Then I thought it must be the end of the school year and I was starting a wonderful new career as a wizarding naturalist. I was going to study the magical creatures in the forest. But soon I didn't know whether I was coming or going. I was so befuddled it seemed to make sense to go backwards. My confusion got worse and worse." Luna faltered slightly, "Eventually it became terrifying. I didn't even know who or what or where I was. I am so sorry it turned out to be such trouble for everyone." replied Luna sadly.

"But why did you not say so? Professor Flitwick would not have given you detention and deducted housepoints if he had known. It was not your fault if you were cursed."

Luna remained silent, unsure what to say and refusing to lie.

"Something else happened didn't it? Something you don't want to talk about?" asked the headmistress gently.

Luna nodded uncomfortably, "Yes, Professor."

McGonagall thought for a few moments, "Such a strong charm or curse would need a powerful counter-curse to remove it. Can you explain how that was done?"

"Sorry, Professor. I cannot say." replied Luna quietly.

"Cannot or will not?"

Luna struggled inwardly about how much she ought to say. Finally, something deep inside released her.

"It was a fairy."

"Miss Lovegood, fairies do not handle wizard magic."

"Oh, it was not a regular fairy; it was of the higher kind. I cannot say any more about it. I'm so sorry. I do not wish to be rude."

McGonagall sighed. "Miss Lovegood, please be serious. If someone curses a Hogwarts' student then I need to get to the bottom of it. There is no evidence for such fairies. They..."

Bingley interrupted, "There may be something in what Miss Lovegood says, headmistress. I sense she is telling the truth and after all, here she is. I have no doubt she was cursed and the curse was removed - presumably in the forest. My opinion is that she would not invent that explanation." She turned to Luna.

"Luna, am I right in thinking that whatever happened, you do not wish to break a confidence? Something special?"

"Yes, that's right, Professor." Luna nodded, half-relieved, half-hoping the teacher would not press her further.

Bingley looked at McGonagall. "Perhaps we should focus on the cause of the curse and forget about how it was removed for now." She turned to Luna again.

"Do you know who put this confusing curse on you Luna?" Bingley asked.

"No Professor. It must have been done secretly." replied Luna.

"But... Has anyone approached you recently - just before you went to the forest - in perhaps unusual circumstances?"

"No, Professor."

"Has anything... Did anything unusual happen at all early that morning? Before you went out I mean?" Bingley persisted.

"No, Professor, I saw nobody. I think I woke up cursed so I must have been cursed in my sleep or even the night before. I was sure all the..." A sudden thought occurred to Luna.

"Oh, I'd forgotten. Someone pushed me the evening before in one of the corridors but I couldn't see anybody. I thought it was... I thought it was just someone being unkind."

She looked at Harry but looked quickly away, ashamed that she had ever thought it might have been him.

Both Bingley and McGonagall were silent for a while thinking deeply. Harry just stared at Luna. Bingley's heightened magical senses and intuitiveness could see the look on Harry's face and knew it was significant.

"Harry, did something happen to you too?" asked Bingley.

"Same thing. I thought it was something from the joke shop. I never gave it much thought afterwards." replied Harry.

"Harry, have you suffered any confusion episodes recently?" asked Bingley.

"No, nothing like that."

"But you were ill weren't you!" said McGonagall. "The reason for this meeting is that the hospital tells me that Mr. Longbottom's failing sight was caused by a rather nasty curse and nothing to do with the fall. At least..." she hesitated then continued.

"At least, I had thought so but it seems we have three occurrences of people being knocked down or tripped up followed by some ailment. Has anyone else..."

But Harry was running to the door. "Ginny!"

McGonagall called after him. "Mr. Potter, remember, Miss Weasley and Miss Abbott are visiting Mr. Longbottom this morning." then she added with a sigh, "Please don't fall down the stairs."

Harry twisted in the doorway and looked back. His face showed his anxiety. Bingley was at the fireplace and soon her head was in the green flames - but not for long.

"They're going to get Miss Weasley to speak to us." she told the room as she stood up.

"Anyone else been pushed, tripped, bumped, or whatever that you know of?" asked McGonagall of anyone in general. Harry and Luna looked at each other and both shook their heads.

Ginny's face poked out of the flames and saw her friends first. "Hi Harry! Hi Luna!" then she realized she was looking into the headmistress's office.

"Miss Weasley, you took a tumble the other day. Were there any after-effects?" asked McGonagall.

"Yes. I got a big bruise on my bum." It is not easy for a bodiless face to hide its embarrassment but Ginny tried.

"Thank you Miss Weasley for that enlightening medical analysis." retorted McGonagall drily as everyone else grinned. "Were there any serious consequences? Have you experienced any unusual injuries, sickness, confusion - anything out of the ordinary?"

"No - I just tripped backwards over a stone and sat down hard." replied Ginny.

"Thank you Miss Weasley - that will be all." said McGonagall.

"Neville's going to be alright!" Ginny yelled at Harry and Luna as her face disappeared back into the flames.

"Mmm... Likely Miss Weasly really did just fall over." conjectured Bingley.

Harry was nodding, "Yes, there really was a stone there - one of those left over from the battle. There was nothing like that when I got pushed - empty corridor." He looked at Luna who was nodding too.

"Hopefully then no serious permanent results of the curses." suggested Bingley.

Again, there was silence for a while as McGonagall paced up and down a little, deep in thought. Perhaps she was wondering what Dumbledore would do.

"If someone wanted to do something really bad they might want to practice first don't you think?" piped up Luna, who had been quiet for a while.

"Malfoy!" exclaimed Harry.

"Mr. Potter!" McGonagall cried. "Do not make wild accusations unless you have some proof."

"Sorry Professor. It was just my reaction. He's a nasty, foul git and if anyone is behind this then it's likely him." snarled Harry then his voice raised again very loudly, "I've had seven years of that..." he tailed off, realizing the futility of his grumbling.

"Don't speak of this to him, Mr. Potter. I'll explain the situation to Professor Worley and ask her to keep an eye on him. There is nobody more competent at uncovering dark activity than her." McGonagall's body language indicated the meeting was over.

Bingley came out with Harry and Luna and Harry asked her if he might use her floo network to ask Ginny about Neville.

"I think you'd better get to your first lessons, don't you? Look, I know you're worried. I'll contact the hospital and get a message to you."

Bingley went her own way at the foot of the stairs and Harry said to Luna, "You're with me aren't you, Luna?"

Luna looked around. "Yes of course I am Harry. Are you alright?"

"No, I mean you're with me in Charms class? We're both in Charms now aren't we?"

"Oh that's nice. We can share a table." replied Luna with a serene smile. She was getting a little old for skipping but the suggestion was there in her light footsteps as she walked beside Harry.



Author's Notes



Comments and reviews are welcome and very encouraging. Thank you.
:)
 

- Hippothestrowl



Chapter 7: Remedies, Research, and Romance
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Professor Flitwick would often spend an evening with his companion, old Wendrith Ebbleton in Hogsmeade. They might send a lad to fill a jug of draught from the local tavern and enjoy it with a tobacco pipe and good conversation at his home. But yesterday was Wendrith's 70th birthday so more friends and relatives came from round about and swept both Wendrith and Filius to the Hog's Head for the night. The professor had enjoyed his friend's celebratory party and entertained with a few clever and rare (though somewhat wobbly) charms. However, although a less exotic charm had partly dispelled the after-effects, he had had little sleep and needed to catch up on marking his students' homework from the night before. He thought quickly then fell back on the good old reliable standby for hung-over teachers: Revision.

"Class, it is most important that all the classwork from previous years be well understood. NEWTS examinations might not have explicit questions on first year charms but they will include complex sections where multiple charms will be needed to solve problems - especially in the practicals. It will be of no use learning an advanced method to turn a cracked old pottery vase to crystal and fill it with roses if you can't levitate the vase down from a high shelf in the first place." Flitwick paused then continued.

"So in this lesson I want you all to pair up and try to outscore your partner. See if you can perform some simple charms that your partner fails to emulate. Nothing dangerous please! If anyone kills their partner then both will face detention." Flitwick paused too long for laughter that never came then proceeded.

"Take any implements and props you need from the cupboards and stores but make sure you return them. There is a stock-taking charm on everything and believe me, you really don't want to fall foul of that nasty little blighter." Flitwick sat down, sighed as he reached up for the top parchment from the huge stack of homework, and took up his two-coloured ink quill. Seeing Ron Weasley's blotted essay in front of him he charmed the quill to red and mentally rolled up his sleeves.

"Sir, do we get house points for each charm that stumps our partner?" asked Seamus with a grin.

"Nice try, Finnigan but then I think I should be giving all the pretenders hundreds of house points." retorted Flitwick without looking up.

"Suppose the winner gets a point and the loser loses a point?" suggested Hermione then grimaced and bit her lip as she realized too late what would happen.

"Yes, that should work. Do that." said Flitwick. He was not really interested and did not want to be disturbed.

A few seconds passed and Hermione held her breath. Perhaps nobody would realize the likely result of her idea.

"That makes no sense because most everyone's sitting with someone in their own house anyway so it cancels out." exclaimed Ernie Macmillan.

"Very well. Cancel the house points idea." Flitwick tried to bury himself deeper behind the pile of homework wishing everyone would just go away and leave him in peace. It really had been a very good evening the night before but it had its price. He began to wonder about using another hangover charm. Flitwick definitely did not want to bother Madame Pomfrey for a ghastly potion. He began to think back over the various obscure charms that would not conflict with the one he had already used.

"We could split up!" proclaimed Ernie excitedly, as though he had had a revelation from the Olympian gods.

Flitwick groaned. Hermione groaned. The whole class groaned - very loudly. Someone threw a highly enlarged currant from a leftover bun at Ernie. Then after some thought they threw the whole bun.

"Yes, yes. Do that. No more disturbances please." begged Flitwick wondering if his quill was set on red or black at the moment. Red ink looks very dark so it was hard to tell, especially since he had set the lighting today on deep gloom. He realized he needed to modify that charm so the feather itself changed colour as well but then he shook his head to forget the idea. Shaking his head was a bad idea. It felt like inertia delayed his brains rotation and when it finally caught up with his skull it ached even more.

"Use the Muffliato charm so you can't hear each other's spell casting." he said to the class then he muttered under his breath, "and so I can't hear you either."

There was a noisy dragging about and screeching of chairs as students changed places. Flitwick winced. Ron held Hermione's arm as she started to rise and gave her the eye and head tilt to suggest she stay. Hermione sank down slowly again, looking around at what others were doing. Ron widened his eyes at Hermione, shrugged and grinned. "What's he gonna do, deduct house points? He can't even see over that homework. Half of it is probably yours anyway."

That got him a soft punch in the arm. Ron's grin widened. Life was good now Hermione's punches were more gentle. He looked across to see who was with Harry.

Luna looked at Harry inquiringly. "Shall I go first?"

"Sure, go ahead Luna." replied Harry, "No wait!" he added as Luna sucked in air then pursed her lips to cast her Muffliato.

"Extend the charm over me or we won't be able to talk." said Harry brightly.

"Oh - do you want to talk to me Harry?" smiled Luna. She pulled her chair up closer to Harry and cast the spell extending her wand to include him.

"Luna, I'm sorry about you know, starting without you at the meeting, we thought..."started Harry leaning to Luna conspiratorially.

"That's alright Harry. Neville explained it to me as we came back from the forest." replied Luna.

"Neville wasn't too happy after the last mind session. He said he missed you not being there." added Harry.

"I know. It really is alright." said Luna. She smiled, "You don't need to feel guilty because you started the meeting so late as curfew began and Professor Worley saw me and I couldn't get to the meeting early so I missed it so you thought I was upset and ran away into the forest so you thought it was your fault. It wasn't."

"Er... yes. Thanks. ... Did you really meet a..." began Harry.

"A fairy? Yes. She was nothing like the normal fairies though. It was the most beautiful experience and worth all the pain and fear." Luna was wistful. "I can't really say very much Harry. Please don't speak to anyone about it."

"May I tell Ginny? She wanted to... We were talking and she really wanted to know what happened." asked Harry, "I'll tell her it's not for discussion though - not to bring it up - ever."

"Yes, that's sweet of you Harry." said Luna then after a pause, "Harry?"

"Yes, Luna?" Harry was pushing back his glasses more firmly and looking at Luna.

"I'm going to write. I'm going to be a naturalist and I'm going to write about magical creatures. One day I shall be able to say some things about the higher fairies. We don't even have a name for them. They are sacred - like angels. They are not for idle gossip and chatter. Sometime I need to find out a little more but I will only have printed what is proper to print."

"That will be wonderful, Luna." Harry was genuinely impressed.

"You do believe me then, Harry?" asked Luna.

"Absolutely. You were one of the very few who believed me when I said Voldemort was back. I definitely believe you met a special kind of fairy." said Harry very firmly. "I'm kind of glad really. I was always rather disappointed in the common fairies."

Harry went on to inform Luna about his near-death experience of Voldemort's world curse and about the mountain he had seen. They were completely absorbed in discussing this when Luna suddenly realized how quiet it was and looked around the Charms classroom. Harry followed her gaze. Everyone was silently chatting to their neighbour. Some seemed to be having animated but totally silent arguments. Some pairs could not hear each other because they had charmed each other separately. The whole class was in disarray because those who had separately muffled themselves could not communicate with each other and those that shared their silencing charm could not cast a charm without their partner hearing.

Ron and Hermione were gesturing and shouting at Harry something rude which Harry hoped Luna would not understand. Hermione drew some shaky coloured backward air writing with her wand, "WAY TO GO HARRY!"

"Where does she want you to go?" asked Luna then after a few moments' thought, "Or perhaps she believes you and I are having a romantic affair do you think?"

"Something like that." replied Harry.

By the end of the lesson nothing much had been learned and Flitwick had not reappeared from behind his pile of homework. Seamus went cautiously over and mouthed back with a big grin, "Fast asleep!"

Most of the class crept around for a look. Flitwick was sitting with his head resting on his arms on a pillow of homework parchments. Someone conjured up a nightcap and put it on Flitwick's head then covered him with a blanket made from an old robe. Hermione completed the scene by levitating down an old pottery vase which she transformed into crystal full of roses and placed it in front of Flitwick.

The last one out closed the door quietly. It was Ernie, ruefully sporting a black eye.
 

~~~~~~~~~~~~

As the week drew to a close, Harry was pleased to hear that Neville was definitely but very slowly improving and Ginny would be back that evening. As students made their way early to the last Defence class of the week, Hermione and Ron were discussing their trip to go to Hermione's parents the next morning.

"Why don't you come too, Harry?" asked Hermione, "You could browse quickly through the books there and perhaps get lucky straight away. Anyway, My parents would love to see you." She added this last comment rather shyly as her parents were now fully informed of Harry's status.

"We've met before, long ago. Remember, back in second year - Diagon Alley?" said Harry, reluctantly.

"You weren't properly introduced and anyway, they didn't really appreciate who you were then..." said Hermione, hopefully. She then added rather sadly, "I suppose it is endlessly tiring - everyone trying to get to shake your hand..."

Harry suddenly felt very mean. He thought of all the ordinary folk who had pressed to get near him; all the faceless officials and authorities who had manoeuvred him into meetings and ceremonies - but this was his best friend's parents, "Of course, I'll come. I'd love to meet them properly."

Hermione brightened up considerably. "Great! Straight after Defence I'll owl mum and dad. You can have a proper muggles' spread for once, Harry instead of a Dursley dog's dinner!"

Harry laughed at the memory, "Look forward to it! ... Hang on ... What's that?" they all stopped, listening to the commotion ahead of them coming from Classroom 3C. Professor Worley was shouting loudly at someone and it sounded serious. As they resumed their approach the noise ceased. They entered together and could see Worley and a chastened Draco Malfoy at the far end of the empty room. Malfoy turned his back as they came in and Worley came forward with a smile. "You're nice and early! We're set up for a little dueling practice to begin so I hope you've got your wands warmed up!"

"Wicked!" exclaimed Ron - but he was looking over Worley's shoulder at Malfoy.

The first part of Defence class was twenty minutes dueling and dodging. Harry faced off with Ernie Macmillan who already had a yellowing black eye from the hefty currant bun thrown at him in Charms a day or two before. No serious curses were allowed but soon a few other students had their own injuries from flying objects and tripping spells.

Hermione was eventually fighting a scruffy Slytherin she did not know so she was trying to be extra cautious but he put up no fight at all and she had no problem in taking his wand and easily felled him in the first few seconds. As Hermione relaxed her guard a blade flashed out at floor level and Hermione let out a scream as a tiny dagger cut into the side of her leg.

Immediately Worley was there shouting at the Slytherin which transformed into a fierce-looking but rather forlorn large, thick-set hound. It dejectedly turned away and vanished. Worley quickly restored a chair and helped Hermione to it.

"Sorry about that Miss Granger." Worley was examining the rather bloody mess of the small wound just above Hermione's ankle, "I had instructed Fobey to demonstrate how an opponent might still be dangerous even when apparently defeated but he was rather more enthusiastic than expected. But imagine, that might have been poisoned or cursed so stay on your guard until you are certain your opponent is disabled."

Worley had addressed this last to the whole class who were now gathered around then she drew her wand.

"I'll use the opportunity to demonstrate a general healing spell that everyone should know because it can be effective on a wide range of injuries, curses, poisons, and so on. Faced with Dark forces you won't always have a professional healer close by. This is a variant of Vulnera Sanentur but is much more wide-ranging in application so it should be your first attempt in an emergency.

"Be aware that this is a difficult spell and its results will depend on your magical powers. Chant it very slowly. Watch the wand movements carefully and note the multiple repetitions."

Worley drew her wand around Hermione's wound several times as she repeated the spell, "Vulnera Sanentur Volgaris!"

The wound very gradually faded away but it took another hour to completely disappear. Worley explained the spell was harmless even if you failed to achieve a healing so it was safe for them to all try on each other. Results were varied. Seamus successfully removed the bruising from Ernie's black eye very quickly whereas others had no success at all with banged elbows and stubbed toes. Worley called for a house elf and had some discarded bad vegetables sent up to continue the practice. Eventually, most of the students achieved at least slight success.

"Practice, practice, practice. It will improve your skill with this spell but ultimately it will depend on the witch or wizard." she explained. "Even if you can only delay a poison or slow down bleeding it might save you until help arrives. I myself am not a professional healer but even I have on occasion turned serious curses with this spell." Worley explained.
 

~~~~~~~~~~~~

Harry Potter put up his feet on the footstool and relaxed back into the Granger's very agreeable settee. The living room had a homely and pleasant atmosphere. It was neat and tidy but not so clinically as the Dursleys' house. Ornate figures and family photos sat on the little fireplace mantlepiece and small pictures decorated the flowery wallpaper here and there. The excellent roast beef and yorkshire pudding dinner rested comfortably in Harry's stomach and he turned the pages of a copy of National Geographic contentedly and with interest. Ron and Hermione were curled up on the floor together skimming through a pile of magazines and books finding every picture, diagram, and photograph of volcanoes that they could. Hermione's parents were standing at an old walnut sideboard sorting through more stacks and occasionally passing some hopefuls down to the couple on the floor.

"These elephants go days and days looking for water." said Harry.

"Harry! Stick to looking at the volcanoes or we'll..." began Hermione.

"Oh - volcanoes - right."

"You can borrow any or all of them to read later if you want, Harry." offered Hermione's father.

"Thanks, Mr. Granger. I'd like that."

After a fruitless hour or so they had collected all the likely books and magazines into Hermione's bag and decided to continue their examination of them over the next few days back at Hogwarts. They made their emotional farewells and Mr. and Mrs. Granger watched affectionately from the back steps as the three apparated from their flower garden. Once out of Mr. and Mrs. Granger's hearing, Ron had suggested that perhaps muggles' pictures would not be as good as wizard ones, "After all, wizards see things that muggles can't. I'm just saying that maybe - I dunno."

They apparated to the far end of Diagon Alley and after cursory investigations of one or two junk shops to see if they had any old books they continued down towards Flourish and Blotts. As they approached Gringott's Bank they grimaced guiltily at the remaining signs of damage they, or rather the dragon they had rode, had caused the last time they had been here. Harry said. "You two go ahead and I'll catch you up. I need to make a small withdrawal - top up my cash."

"OK, If we don't hear from you in the next few days we'll visit you in Azkaban. I'm told it's quite nice these days." quipped Ron and he and Hermione hurried nervously past.

There was no problem with the goblins of Gringotts. Harry heard a few mutterings but that was normal from these strange creatures. Generally, Harry Potter was well-regarded. The fate of goblins at the hands of the wizarding world with Voldemort in power were dreadful for them to contemplate. As he walked around in his parents' vault - or rather his vault now - he skirted around the piles of galleons and sickles to an old oak chest with silver banding he had uncovered there some years before. Here were kept his families' personal heirlooms and effects. There were small worthless knick-knacks, small pieces of jewellery, ornaments and other valuables and old letters and photographs that Harry liked to browse through. Harry took a few items, relocked the chest, scooped up a bagful of galleons and left.
 

~~~~~~~~~~~~

Harry never thought that anything the Daily Prophet reported would surprise him ever again. But this headline was intended to shock. It read "YOU KNOW WHO: RISEN FROM THE GRAVE!"

All the Gryffindor students in the Great Hall were gathered around Seamus in amazement as he read out the Sunday morning edition:

"The little-known tomb of He-who-must-not-be-named was desecrated last night by a large mob of angry victims. It is believed that a ministry leak of its secret whereabouts was the original cause of the riot - for riot it was as furious witches and wizards blasted the stonework of this monument with fire and other destructive curses only to find it empty! Is he some kind of dark messiah? Has he indeed risen again? Was he ever really killed by the Chosen One?

"Minister Shacklebolt has stated that the matter will be fully investigated but it is believed some members of the militant crowd carried off the remains and have either destroyed the body or buried it in unholy ground. Whatever they did and whatever their reasons, there is no cause for alarm."

Other groups in the Great Hall were also standing, reading and noisily discussing the report together. There was no attempt from the headmistress to stop the commotion initially because McGonagall too was in concerned discussion with her staff.

Some Ravenclaw and Hufflepuff students were coming over to the Gryffindor table led by Marietta Edgecombe, "What's this about, Harry? Is he dead or what? He's supposed to be dead. Why did you say he was dead?"

"I never said any such thing but I'll say it now in case anyone is in doubt."shouted back Harry angrily, then he raised his voice even louder and spoke slowly so everyone could hear quite plainly,"VOLDEMORT ... IS ... DEAD! I promise you I actually SAW what he became. His soul was ripped into eight whimpering pathetic pieces and each piece is fully DESTROYED and gone to hell! There is no way back from that. No way at all. Not by muggle science. Not by Merlin's magic. Not by a miracle - not for such as him at any rate!"

That silenced the entire hall for many seconds. They had heard mixed reports but never heard it from the source before. And Harry Potter now commanded an awesome respect. Then a lone voice piped up, much smaller than Harry's yell but high and clear and piercing. A voice that had never addressed everyone all at once before but which spoke with certainty and confidence despite that.

"Harry Potter has proven again and again that he does not lie. He tells the truth. It is time you all trusted him."

It was Luna Lovegood, her eyes sparkling with rare anger.

The gathering was reduced to thoughtfulness and sporadic mutterings and McGonagall took this moment to restore order, "Thank you school. That will be all. There will be no more outbursts unless anyone wishes to leave hungry. You may discuss quietly among yourselves over breakfast. Resume your seats. She waved her hands and the meal appeared.
 

~~~~~~~~~~~~

Hannah held up three fingers then one then four.

"Three ... one ... four." said Neville, propped up in his hospital bed in the corner of the ward.

"And now?" asked Hannah.

"Six? Come on Hannah!" laughed Neville and Ginny joined in the laughter.

"Just a little useless spell I learned a couple of years ago." smiled Hannah, glad to see Neville was feeling a little brighter and proud that she had cheered him up.

Neville's eyesight had indeed slowly improved all day. He had not completely lost it but it had been close and every hour or so he liked to check and see how much better it was. He could not yet see enough to read the dreadful ingredients listed on the potion vial on his bedside table but at least now he could count fingers. Judging by the advances he was hopeful he could be released within a few days.

Ginny spoke. "I've got to get back in a few minutes, Neville. But Ron, Hermione, Harry, and Luna are coming over tomorrow - I think in the early evening so you won't be stuck for company." She looked at Hannah.

"You're staying over again aren't you, Hannah?" Ginny asked.

Hannah nodded then remembering yet again that Neville couldn't clearly see gestures and body language, said aloud, "Yes, I'm staying at Mrs. Longbottom's overnight again and will be back here in the morning. I'll be here for another hour Gin; Neville wants to tell me something - you don't mind?"

Ginny's eyes widened. "No - of course not. I'll apparate from right outside and be back at Hogwarts for the evening meal. Look, I'll go now then." Ginny rose up and pulled her cloak around her, "Give my love and thanks to Mrs. Longbottom please, Hannah?"

Hannah agreed and watched as Ginny left the ward, then turned her attention back to Neville.

"You're sure my eyes still look OK?" asked Neville.

"Yes, I told you - they're fine - they're no different than they've ever been - except of course, they keep looking at me more and more." smiled Hannah.

"I'm afraid that's incurable." Neville smiled back, then he continued, "I told you there's something I want to tell you - well, three things really."

Hannah waited.

"Firstly, I was really sorry a couple of years ago when I heard... you know, about your mum... I so much wanted to tell you then but I was too cowardly. I've always been ashamed of that." said Neville.

"You're not a coward, Neville. You're the bravest of them all." said Hannah quietly. "It was horrible at the time. I've had to adjust... come to terms with it - but I don't think I ever will really. I'll never forget my mum. Parents are everything."

There was silence for a while then Neville continued.

"That's the other thing I wanted to tell you about..." began Neville, "I want you to meet my parents."

Hannah stared. Neville explained how his parents had been tortured to insanity by Death Eaters and did not even recognize Neville anymore. Hannah's eyes shone as she listened to Neville telling her and she put her hand over her mouth as she heard to what they had been reduced.

"Hannah, could you... would you lead me? I want you to see... to meet them."

"Neville! Are you sure you should be..." protested Hannah, but not strongly.

"Yes, the orderly leads me to the bathroom so... Anyway, my other injuries are completely fixed. Although I'm a little weak from lying in bed for a few days I'm OK to walk. If you can lead me I'll tell you the way. Can you get my dressing gown - over there?"

Neville swung his legs out of bed and stood up. Hannah helped him on with his robe then took his arm.

"No, it's easier if I take your arm for this." said Neville.

As they walked, Neville gave Hannah directions to the Janus Thickey Ward where his parents resided and Hannah led him along perhaps more gently than was really necessary. They had to explain themselves at the door but Neville was known to several of the staff from his many visits here and they were given access.

As they tried to get through the doorway together, Hannah stumbled from the doorpost and pressed up against Neville. Embarrassed, she apologized and gazed around looking rather puzzled.

"Maybe I should be leading you." laughed Neville to relieve the tension. He had liked the feel of her against him but not the situation and he wondered why Hannah had done that.

They sat with his parents not speaking much. Neville's mother and father stared ahead most of the time, occasionally saying something incoherent. Hannah held Neville's mother's hand. She was choked up inside as she thought of her own mother's death - also at the hands of Death Eaters. The connection was obvious and no words were really needed. The bond between the young man and the girl grew stronger.

"Thank you so much for letting me meet your parents, Neville." Hannah whispered as she led him back. Their physical nearness made them feel emotionally closer than ever and Neville felt disappointed when he separated from her warmth and sat down on his own bed again and stared down at the floor despondently.

Hannah lowered herself into a chair again. She felt Neville needed a little time to himself after a visit to see his parents so she said, "I still have another half an hour; let's just sit for a while."

For many minutes she wanted to hold his hand but there was too much space between them and she thought it would feel contrived. Then she remembered about his friends: Harry and Hermione, and Ron - perhaps Luna too. She recalled how she had felt sure for the last few days that there was something brewing between them; something bad. She was afraid to ask; afraid that it might separate her from Neville but she forced herself to say, "What was the other thing you wanted to tell me - you said there were three things."

Neville came back to himself and looked up. "Yes... yes there is. Hannah, I thought I was going to lose my sight.. Well, I thought a few months ago, facing Voldemort, I was certain to lose my life but I didn't have time to dwell on it. But here... I had time. I started to think. Hannah, I want to tell you how much I care for you, how much I love you..."

Hannah moved silently and swiftly across the gap between them. She sat by his side and they held each other. "Hannah, soon as this is over... I want to get a ring. I want to marry you Hannah. Will you have me?"

The evening had been too emotional. Hannah could not speak properly. Neville felt her body trembling; felt her head trying to nod her agreement against his shoulder; could feel her whimpering "mmm... mmm..." deep in her throat against his.

"I'll take that as a yes, then." he said as he embraced her tighter for a few seconds. It took Hannah a little longer to recover enough for them to kiss.



Author's Notes



Comments and reviews are welcome and very encouraging. Thank you.
:)
 

- Hippothestrowl





Chapter 8: Promises
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"Think I might have a sandwich or two, please?" asked Ron of the tiny house-elf in the kitchen doorway. She was the smallest elf Ron had ever seen and she seemed rather nervous and at a loss for words. For several seconds she stared at Ron so he repeated his request.

"I missed the evening meal. It's just a snack I need, please Miss. I can't last till morning." he added by way of explanation.

"Feya wishes to be of service of course, Sir." the timid little elf finally said. She had a very light, high-pitched voice but it was pleasant to the ear like softly flowing sounds on a liquid violin string. Looking around behind her she dashed off through the darkened kitchen towards the far door, her little feet hardly making a sound on the hard tiled floor. As she scurried away she called back,

"Feya is happy to fetch help for the polite young Sir."

Ron stood in the kitchen gazing around preparing to wait. One flaming wall torch was flickering very low in a corner and the fire in the fireplace had burned down to a deep ruddy glow. The light from neither of them extended very far and the stub of a candle on a table did not offer much in the way of illumination either. The little light that there was picked out the shiny brass and iron edges of pots, pans, and various utensils, some rounded, some angular. These were poised on open shelving or clinging to age-blackened hooks along the walls - just enough glimmer to help Ron make out the wider outline shape of the great Hogwarts' kitchen.

"What is it Feya?" Just as the tiny elf had reached the farthest door it had opened, spilling newer, brighter light into the kitchen and the silhouette of another house-elf was coming out, his long shadow flung half way across the floor. He looked over at Ron.

The tiny elf spoke softly to the silhouette but Ron heard her clearly across the silent kitchen, "Sir wishes sandwiches - for a late snack - Sir cannot last till morning."

"Not to worry, Sweetest. Mikey will attend to Sir. If Feya wishes, might she perhaps make Sir a cup of tea?" The new elf suggested this in a supportive, kindly manner. It was not a command yet it carried some kind of authority. Ron could not see the smile on the silhouette but he sensed it in the voice.

"Feya thanks Mikey. Feya is very happy to make Sir a cup of tea." responded the tiny elf. There was delight and relief in her voice as if before she had not been sure what to do but now was glad to be of use.

Ron wondered if she was new to service - just starting her first employment. But though tiny, she did not look like an elfling; she was a young but fully grown house-elf. Ron was vaguely puzzled about what else she could have been doing before today.

The larger elf bustled around the kitchen, snapping his fingers to brighten up the place and to open cupboards and drawers. Torch and candleflame sprang up and the sleeping fire was roused to a crackle and a merry roar with the addition of more half-logs that clambered in, eager to be consumed. A heavy white-enamelled bread bin flew across to the table chased by a broad kitchen knife and a large sweet ham. As the slumbering kitchen seemed to awaken, stretch, and yawn with its many new motions, smells, and sounds, the large elf called out to Ron,

"Happy to provide sandwiches, Sir."

Ron watched a fine plate of salmon, bowls of heaped salads, and various condiments led by a little mustard bowl, all obediently scurrying to their places on the kitchen table.

"May I add my appreciation, Sir - for your part."

"What? How do you mean?" asked Ron in a puzzled tone.

"The battle, Sir - the Great Battle. The kitchen received a message, Sir - a most thoughtful message - a warning, which Mikey presumes, no Mikey knows, that Sir was gracious to think of us."

Ron's face flushed deeply and he wished the kitchen were still dark, "Oh, that - yes, nothing really - I was just... I er... just... you know. Didn't want you to be trapped..."

Feya, the tiny elf, distracted Ron somewhat from his embarrassment by apparating across with a steaming cup of tea which he took gratefully and attempted to hide his face in the tilt of the cup as he took big slurps. Mrs. Weasley might have cuffed him for his bad manners but from the corner of his eye Ron could see the little elf was practically clapping her hands together with delight. There is nothing a good house elf loves more than for their efforts to be appreciated and enjoyed.

The emptied cup was quickly filled from Feya's waiting teapot that Ron had to stoop low for and Mikey, the larger elf, happily handed over a generous plateful of neatly cut, mixed sandwiches with a few fat buns and cakes thrown in for good measure. Ron, after giving his profuse thankyous, made his way to the foot of the stairs taking great care not to spill the brimming ripples of his tea. As he did so, he saw, hastily and breathlessly descending the stairs from above him, a person whose face was so radiant that it took Ron a couple of seconds to realize who it was.

"Hannah? Is that you?- Hannah! - How's Neville?" Ron asked.

"He's great! He's doing well. We think he'll be back tomorrow or the day after tomorrow! " gasped Hannah. As she squeezed past Ron on the bottom step she leaned over, gave him a quick kiss on the cheek and hustled off to her common room, "Gotta go - see you tomorrow!" she called back.

Ron staggered about on the bottom step slopping tea from cup to saucer but just managed to hold on to all his refreshments. "What in Merlin's name was that all about?" he asked himself aloud.

He congratulated himself that his precious snack, and particularly the topmost chocolate eclair, was intact and he restarted his ascent of the stairs - feeling with the toe of his shoe for the top of the first step which was hidden from view by the large plate. His relief lasted no longer than that one step however as someone else came down and bumped hard past him. Ron almost lost everything. By sheer luck he stumbled forward and slammed the plate and teacup down horizontally on a step above him with only a drop or two spilt. Ron himself had the presence of mind or at least the instinct to let go of them at that point because his own momentum, combined with his collider's, twisted him about and down the step into an untidy heap at the foot of the stairs.

Ron looked around but could not see with whom he had crashed. There was the sound of running steps both away from him along the corridor and also ominously towards him from above. In a panic, Ron quickly rescued his plate and cup from the stair and shrunk back to the wall just as a determined Professor Worley appeared around the curve of the stone spiral.

"Who's that? - Oh it's you Mr. Weasley - anyone pass you?" asked Worley.

Ron could not hide the illicit snack but Worley did not seem interested so he responded almost happily, "Yes - thataway! " he gestured with an outstretched teacup then pulled it back to his side rather guiltily.

"Homenum Revelio!" yelled Worley rather theatrically down the corridor.

Students were jostling out of the Hufflepuff common room to see what the commotion was about but it was the student revealed further along the corridor that had everyone's attention.

"Malfoy!" exclaimed both Worley and Ron in unison, Worley adding, "Stay right where you are!"

To Ron she said, "Headmistress's office - now!" as she hurried up to Malfoy.

Three times Ron had saved his meal, four if one counts the possibility of confiscation, but now he stood there dumbstruck with his buns and hot drink in front of the Hufflepuffs feeling like he'd been caught with his pants down. Hannah came over, "Want me to look after these for you, Ron?"

She took the unstarted, untasted, untested meal from the unfortunate Weasley who watched in horror as it disappeared amongst a group of giggling Hufflepuff girls who then shuffled it back into their common room like ants taking a captured sugar lump into their nest.

"My snack..." muttered Ron to himself, trying to absorb the enormity of what had happened. He sighed, licked a trace of choux pastry and cream off his fingers, then turned and ascended the stairs as Professor Worley and a sullen Malfoy came up behind him.
 

~~~~~~~~~~~~

"Malfoy is leaving Hogwarts!" shouted Ron as he burst into the Gryffindor common room, "He's been expelled!"

"No way!" shouted an exultant Seamus pushing his book to one side and getting to his feet. The silver-haired Slytherin's part in the Carrow and Snape domination of Hogwarts had been a bitter pill for Seamus to swallow and he hated Draco Malfoy more deeply than he ever had before. Malfoy's return as a free student added to the frustration that Seamus and others felt.

"Tell me again! Tell me that verminous snake slime is really kicked out!" demanded Seamus moving forward to where Ron stood.

"He's going alright! Worley caught him trying to curse me! He's been using the Disillusionment Charm to hide himself while he attacks people. We've been in McGonagall's. She was livid! Never seen her so furious!" Ron was so excited he had temporarily forgotten about his empty stomach.

Harry was jubilant but puzzled. "I don't know how I missed him then. But this is brilliant! This will be the best Hogwarts' year ever! All the worst..." He tailed off as he remembered Snape. It was a strange conflict of feelings to be both relieved of Snape's years of tyranny and bullying yet also remember his awful sacrifice. Harry bit his tongue rather than say a bad word against him. Snape had paid the ultimate price.

Ginny came down from the girls' dormitory along with Parvati and others to find out what her brother was shouting about.

"Ginny - Malfoy is being expelled! Oh yeah - and Hannah is back!" Ron slowed down thoughtfully as he reminded himself of his lost meal and it took the edge off his exuberance.

"She's back! When was this?"

"Just now! Ten minutes ago! Ginny! Where're you going? ... Ginny if you're going to see Hannah then bring back my snack!" shouted Ron then, as Ginny ran out he added a long, desperate, drawn-out yell, "Snaaaack!"
 

~~~~~~~~~~~~

On her return thirty minutes later, when Ginny burst excitedly back into the Gryffindor common room, she found an exuberant pillow fight well under way. Flashing wands were duplicating, enlarging, spinning, and hurling pads and bolsters, cushions and pillows, hard and soft along multiple trajectories. There were so many flying around that inevitably one of them would find a gap in the shield charms that everyone was hastily generating in between their levitation spells. Even Hermione, who had initially disdained the action as childish and inappropriate over such a serious punishment as expulsion, was now yelling and laughing with the best of them - and her wand work was better than most. Ron loved to see her so happy and so girlish but he had to keep his mind on the confusing, anarchic game.

Ginny ducked as a stiff red seat cushion flashed over her head from the left and Hermione put her hand over her mouth in mock horror only to be hit by a giant fat green pillow that exploded into thousands of feathers and added to the slow continuous rain of them already filling the room space.

"You Draco! You Draco! You Draco!" shouted Dean pointing at Hermione and everyone pelted her with a bombardment of woollen hats which Hermione blocked with a series of shield charms.

"Ron, Copy the blue! Make it green!" shrieked Hermione at her partner in the improvised recreation. Ron was still trying to work out the rules but made a dive for a small blue cushion wedged under an overturned chair.

Harry, seeing that Ginny was bursting to say something called "Time out! Time out!" but muggle expressions tend to be ignored by wizards so the Chosen One took the red seat cushion right in the face and was knocked ignominiously flat on his back where he lay quite still.

"Harry!" yelled Ginny, running forward and the fight came to a sudden halt. Carefully and slowly Ginny lifted the cushion off Harry's face to find him grinning up at her.

"You fraud!" Ginny pinning him back down under the cushion again then remembering, said excitedly to the room in general, "Listen! Guess what?"

"What?" came Harry's muffled voice from beneath the cushion.

"Malfoy's been granted a stay of execution?" asked Seamus fearfully.

"You are really Professor McGonagall under the influence of a polyjuice potion?" offered Dean.

"You've recovered my sandwiches?" suggested Ron hopefully.

"You're not even close ... Neville and Hannah." hinted Ginny, releasing her prisoner from his padded cell.

"Oh my God! Tell me. Tell me." shrieked Hermione plucking fluffy feathers out of her mouth and hair whilst running forward to Ginny.

"They're engaged! Neville proposed! Hannah is as high as a ladder on a Halloween broomstick. I just knew when I left them there was something happening!"

"Did they snog?" smirked Seamus.

"Did they stop don't you mean!" laughed Ginny, "We had to tickle it out of her but Hannah confessed he's a real good kisser."

"Well, well, well. Good for old Neville." said Harry, "That's utterly brilliant. I didn't think it would be this quick. Did Hannah say when?"

"No, it will be a while. Probably after Hogwarts when they've got jobs."

"What about the ring? What is..." began Hermione.

"Not yet. Neville only decided suddenly he wouldn't wait a minute longer because of the... Well, Hannah said it was a shock to him - his sight going. Made him think." Ginny looked around.

"Where's Ron?"

"He just slipped upstairs." said Hermione turning away so only Ginny and Harry could hear the ending, "You know Ron, tough as old boots but... emotionally uncommunicative sometimes."

Ginny guided Hermione into the reading room for a bit of privacy where they talked quietly, Ginny smiling her encouragement and told her a few stories about when she and Ron were very little. A battered tin bath in the garden had been their pirate ship with an old broom mast lashed to a wedged chair. Ginny said how scared Ron had been when she had used accidental magic and levitated them across their grass ocean. She soon had Hermione cheerful and giggling again and they went back into the common room wondering how long it would be before Ron came down.

Ron was alarmed and embarrassed. He couldn't face Hermione's hopes and expectations. He knew deep down he would want to marry Hermione one day but he was fearful of the commitment and the responsibility. He tried to imagine himself as the head of a household like his father and Ron shuddered at the thought. He had always supposed he would struggle through school as a requirement then he would have some freedom to enjoy life and then one vague distant day get married. That had been his vision - not getting engaged at school! Ron's eyes widened as he lay on his bed staring upwards. Probably you never get to be free: school - job - marriage he was thinking ruefully to himself.

"Ron, when are you going to just talk things over with Hermione? You know how sensible she is and you know she loves you. You don't have to avoid or fight. She won't bite." It was Harry who had eventually followed Ron upstairs.

"You're one to talk! What about you and my sister!" replied Ron defensively sitting upright and swinging his legs onto the floor to face Harry.

"I'm..." Harry paused, thinking for the right words, "I'm making my plans. I've already... Anyway, that's between me and Ginny."

"You've already... What you done, Harry? Have you asked her?"

"No, not yet, but I've... I'm going to discuss with her... That is..."

Ron laughed drily. "You're a fine one to give me advice Mr. Harry Not yet But Going to Potter.'"

"What I mean is I'm waiting for the right opportunity to talk it over with Ginny and..." He saw Ron's eyes swivel towards the top of the stairs. Harry turned to look.

"What's wrong with right now?" it was Ginny. She had come up quietly to try to persuade Ron to come down.

Ron and Harry stared at Ginny - then at each other.

"Harry..." Ron tailed off. Hermione was there too. She had followed Ginny up the stairs.

"Well, this is jolly awkward." said Hermione, uncomfortably.

"No - it's OK. There is no perfect time." sighed Harry, "Ginny, can you come and sit with me please - I have to..."

Ginny walked over wide-eyed and sat down on the edge of Harry's bed. Hermione tried to attract Ron's attention to signal him to come downstairs to give Harry some privacy. Ron was just gaping at Harry and Ginny. He could not believe this was happening. Not now. In a few years time yes. He felt Hermione's hand grip his arm and he let her pull him away and they went downstairs together.

Harry went over to the trunk at the foot of his bed and rifled through for a flattened cardboard shoebox. Its top sagged and box and lid were held together with a piece of old string. He scooped the box out, closed the trunk lid and put the box on his bedside table, catching it as it almost slipped off the edge. He sat down next to Ginny and looked at her.

"I'm really sorry Ginny. This is not what you think at all. I wanted to do this more prepared. Now I dare not even wonder what you're expecting." He busied himself untying the string.

Ginny's heart sank. It felt like a cold stone. She might as well have been cursed because she felt frozen in place. It was as if her will was no longer functioning. She was terrified of whatever was in that box. She knew now it could not be a ring. And there was nothing else she wanted anymore. All she wanted was her Harry. She had borne the last few years stoically - yet always with hope. She felt tears forming and in her helpless state she could not fight them. Yet even now she did not want to burden Harry with her emotions. She managed to wipe her hand across her face a few times and then to speak. She was surprised her voice sounded so normal and did not tremble. She was grateful Harry had not noticed her weakness.

"That's alright." was all she could say but she was glad that those few words came out.

Harry took what appeared to be a couple of old letters from the box. They were very dog-eared and worn. Remaining in the crushed box, previously hidden by the letters, was a small bundle - just a little wrapping of soft white cloth.

"This message was from my dad to my mum - or at least, something he wrote out for her." Harry hesitated. "It's something very special to me. It was his commitment. He... I wanted to do something similar but... But I couldn't. I couldn't improve on what he said. I wrote it out again. But I couldn't make it any better. And I didn't want to say anything less. I just slightly altered it for you and me. I started to memorise it - but I've not had time yet... So if you don't mind... I'll read it to you."

Harry pulled the lower, newer letter from below and placed it on top of his dad's letter. Ginny wasn't breathing now. At least she thought she was not because she felt so still.

Harry took the little bundle and opened it up carefully in the palm of his hand then placed it on the quilt between them. On the cloth lay a fine silver pendant attached to a slender, delicate chain. It's indistinct shape seemed to change slowly before their eyes: a rounded lozenge, a heart, a stag, a horse. As he put it down a pale white light shimmered around it. Harry began to read from his letter,

"This pendant is the most precious thing I own. It is precious because it is the most personal tangible contact I have with my parents. It is irreplaceable... But I want you to have it."

Ginny gasped but could not speak. Harry continued,

"It is a promise pendant. It's flawless magic has come down from ages past. It is as pure as my love for you." Harry did not now seem to read the message at all. He spoke directly and naturally to Ginny. Perhaps he had learnt the words after all. Or perhaps he had never needed to write them down.

Ginny's tears did now escape silently but she remained still and let them slip. Harry continued,

"With this act I commit myself to you. With this token I confess my deepest affection for you. With this offering I give myself freely to you.

"I have always cared for you Ginny Weasley but now I love you completely. Please accept this pendant as my pledge if you wish to accept me. Please accept this contract if you wish to share your life with me. Please accept this obligation if you wish to commit yourself to me as I commit myself with this charmed symbol. If you so accept then it shall carry with it our binding magical promise to each other for all our lives and beyond.

"No more words are needed for it will read your heart as it reads mine. You need only walk away if you wish not to accept."

Ginny remained very still looking into Harry's eyes. Harry silently lay the letter down on the quilt and gently lifted the pendant by the chain which parted of its own accord at the clasp. Harry reached forward and placed it around Ginny's neck. The little pendant transformed slowly to a softly-outlined gold suffused with a bloom of amber.

Their gentle kisses held them together as powerfully as any spell until eventually they came slowly back to the present and made their way downstairs.

The scene that greeted them made them both laugh. Everyone was unsure where to place themselves, trying to look normal and casual yet they were all waiting for the couple to return. They had listened to the faint sound of Harry's voice and felt the impact of its quiet, serious tone but had not heard the words. In contrast to the air of expectancy, floor, furniture, and clothing were still comically smothered in feathers while pillows and cushions lay almost everywhere.

"Scourgify!" It was Ginny.

"I guess I need the housekeeping practice." she explained as the feathers streaked back into pillows and cushions fought to get back onto chairs.

Everyone continued to stare blankly.

"Me and Harry we're..." she began by way of further explanation. Harry took her hand.

Hermione shrieked and ran to hug them both and there was general uproar as everyone congratulated them. Even Ron was grinning. He slapped Harry on the back and embraced his sister.

Ginny was showing Hermione her pendant and explaining to everyone it was an ancient heirloom handed down through Harry's family. It opened itself unexpectedly to show an image of Harry and Ginny laughing and smiling together. Harry stared, smiling at the picture.

"It's changed itself. I hadn't expected that. It used to show my mum and dad. I was going to put in a new picture but it seems I don't need to..." Harry smiled anew in admiration at the ornament.

But there was something else shaping itself within the opened locket. At first it was formless luminescence but it slowly resolved itself to a ring of golden light. The radiance seemed to solidify to gold then to crystal then to silver as they watched. Tiny gem stones flowed their colours over it, reshaping themselves, repositioning themselves endlessly. Ginny gazed in astonishment. It was like looking at her own thoughts and feelings manifesting themselves.

"I said it would read your heart Ginny - but I didn't know about this." said Harry quietly. He carefully took the shimmering ring and placed it on Ginny's finger to an uproar of shouts and applause.

"Those ancient mages really had style didn't they!" exclaimed Seamus.
 

~~~~~~~~~~~~

There was a lively atmosphere over breakfast two days later. News of Draco Malfoy's expulsion had of course spread to everyone at Hogwarts. Neville was expected back by lunchtime and a small homecoming celebration was planned in the Gryffindor Tower. Now the school year was well under way and the students had settled into a routine without the horror and fear of previous years under Umbridge or the Carrows. So the feeling was generally upbeat and relaxed. It was good to be at Hogwarts.

Ginny was content. Her pendant was now an almost invisible crystal reflecting her mood. The gems on her engagement ring still flowed very slowly but were a subdued pastel. Harry Potter however, was not relaxed. He seemed agitated and two or three times Ginny noticed him almost start to stand up then sink back again. He was eating with reluctance too, jabbing at a sausage now and again.

"What's up, Harry?" asked Ginny.

"Nothing - no - not nothing, sorry." replied Harry. He had resolved not to keep saying that especially to Ginny when clearly something was troubling him. He continued,

"It's Hannah. Do you think you could..." he tailed off.

Ginny looked across the happy Hogwarts' gathering to the Hufflepuff table. Hannah was sitting slightly apart with Susan Bones who seemed to be trying to comfort her. An owl stood patiently on the table next to Hannah.

"Oh no! It can't be!" said Ginny quietly, staring back and forth between Harry and the scene at the Hufflepuff table.

"I... er... Ginny, I think it's going to be alright but I don't know." said Harry, very hesitantly.

"What do you mean?"

"Not sure. I've got a feeling..." he sighed then continued, "I'm useless at secrets aren't I?"

He spoke the last very quietly so even Ron and Hermione couldn't hear but they were absorbed in each other and it was likely a falling herd of hippogriffs would not have disturbed them.

"Listen, Gin, I can't tell you now but I will in time. If you get a chance... Try and encourage Hannah whatever it is. It would be better coming from you than me."

Ginny stared at Harry. "Harry Potter, what have you been up to? ... OK. I'll slip over there when a few kids start to leave."

"Don't mention me though!" added Harry.

"No I won't tell her it was you that turned Neville into a venomous tentacula."

Now it was Ginny's turn to be a little distracted, awaiting the right moment. It was a tradition at Hogwarts that you didn't sit at the table of other houses nor move around during meals but once students started leaving after finishing their meal it often happened that some would stop and chat with friends for a minute or two. So Ginny waited.

Ron was whispering to Hermione, "No, that's not true. You must know I take our relationship seriously. You're everything to me."

"Then what are you afraid of?" asked Hermione in an equally low voice.

"We're still at school 'Mione - then we'll need to find work. Harry has... " Ron spoke even more quietly and bowed his head close to Hermione's, "Harry has a guaranteed income and Neville is brilliant; he'll do alright. But I need to... I have to... I want the freedom to get myself sorted out with a decent job to be able to support you..."

"It's not just the money though, is it Ron?" asserted Hermione, "You used the word 'freedom'. Are you afraid of the commitment? Of being tied down with me?"

"No, I... Listen, You know I care for you. You know I..." Ron's voice dropped to almost inaudibility, "You know I love you but I'm just not very good at saying it. I'm not good with words like Harry. Believe me I really, really, want one day to settle down and be with you... For life - honest!"

"Are you serious about that?" asked Hermione.

"Absolutely serious I promise." replied Ron, "I just want to wait is all I'm saying."

"But if you... You just said you promise. You promise that you want to be with me for life. That's all the commitment is Ron. That's all there is to an engagement..." Hermione hesitated for Ron's reaction.

Ron thought deeply about what Hermione was saying. He felt the need to wait but what Hermione said made sense too. He twisted uncomfortably inside, wondering what to say. "I wish... I wish I could talk better... like Harry or..."

"I don't want Harry or anyone else. I want Ron Weasley. I want you as you are." Hermione put her hand over Ron's on the table and gave it a squeeze.

"I could never understand why you even wasted your time with me..." Ron paused, "You're far better than me..."

"No - I'm just different to you. I wanted someone I could rely on; someone I could trust; someone stable and constant; someone who's not arrogant or bullying or domineering; someone who has the courage to do the right thing; someone I enjoy being with; someone who's fun to be with." Hermione sighed, "To be honest the real truth is I fell in love with you and my reasonings don't have any say in the matter - right or wrong - good or bad."

Some of the students had finished eating and were starting to leave. Hermione became aware that Ron's breakfast had been forgotten. She smiled and reminded Ron. He stared at his plate of egg, bacon, and beans and began to slowly crunch some nearly-cold fried bread still deep in thought.

Ginny's chance came and she stood up and tried to look casual as she wondered over to Hannah.

"Hi Hannah! What's up?" she asked as she sat down next to the Hufflepuff. She could see the tightly screwed-up parchment that the patiently-waiting owl had brought.

"Neville's not coming back till... he's delayed coming back." replied Hannah.

"What! Oh - I'm sure it's going to be alright. They're just holding him back as a precaution. Look how careful Madame Pomfrey is about letting anyone leave." Ginny checked herself, aching to read the message but not daring to be so rude.

"No, it's Neville. He asked to stay himself." replied the despondent Hannah.

"What! Er... Oh right. I'm sure there's a good explanation..." began Ginny.

"But why didn't they say why?" asked the tearful girl.

"Ginny's right - there'll be a good reason you'll see and guys tend to forget we worry about them." interjected Susan.

"Exactly. Try a few years with Harry and you'll pull all your hair out with fretting then afterwards you wonder why." laughed Ginny - but it was a forced laugh and rather hollow.

"May I see the message?" asked Ginny after a short period of silence. Her curiosity had got the better of her.

"Sure. It doesn't say much." replied Hannah.

Ginny grabbed the crumpled document and smoothed it out. The message was written on St. Mungo's headed parchment and was from the matron of the ward where Neville was staying. It said simply that Neville had asked if he could stay another day so not to expect him yet.

"Look, why don't we..." Ginny paused and turned to look around at the Ravenclaw table.

"Luna! have you got your Quibbler reporter's go-anywhere quill?"

Luna had been just gathering herself to leave but came over and lent Ginny her quill which Ginny held poised ready to write on the back of the parchment.

"Say the word and I'll send this back and politely ask for an explanation. Men never bloody explain nothing!" complained Ginny.

Another owl flew in at that moment and settled beside the first and the two began inquisitively nibbling each other.

"That was quick! This quill is amazing!" said Ginny with a laugh as Hannah grabbed at the message on the new arrival's leg. After a few seconds her face was lighting up a little.

"This one is from Neville..." she paused as she read more, "He's just heard the matron wrote before he was ready. He says..."

Hannah read a little more - keeping the other girls in suspense.

"He's says not to worry but he's seeing his parents because... something happened... but it's not something seriously bad so don't worry..." Hannah looked at the faces around her for their reaction.

"Ah! Probably a minor accident or a head cold but he wants to be with them." said Ginny, "You see? Nothing to worry about."

"Sometimes things are not what they seem at all." smiled Luna serenely.

The last two in the Great Hall were Ron and Hermione, heads still together whispering but no one was left to overhear them. Ron had eaten some of his meal but had finally abandoned it.

"Ron, if someone else asked me... If you heard someone else was going to ask me to marry them... What would you do?" asked Hermione.

"Kill him! Who is he and where is he hiding?" replied Ron with a forced grin.

"Seriously. Think about it." persisted Hermione.

Ron examined his own feelings carefully but he already knew the answer.

"I'd marry you today if you'd have me." said Ron in a hoarse whisper and he turned his head away.

Hermione bit her lip with regret. Even from his profile she could see the terrible emotional torment Ron was trying to hide as he contemplated the possibility of losing Hermione.

"It's not going to happen, Ron - unless you say you're never going to marry me..." said Hermione very quietly.

"I'm a really nasty, selfish git. I don't know what's wrong with me." muttered Ron. His voice was rather choked and he kept his head turned away.

"Ron, how about a compromise?" suggested Hermione, trying to think of a way to resolve the issue and relieve Ron's pain.

Ron waited. He was exhausted of any more ideas himself.

"You've already as good as said you definitely want us to be married one day?"

"Yes."

"A secret engagement. Nobody knows but us. No ring. No nothing. Just your promise, Ron - I know you'll never break it. Anyone can give a ring. Not everyone can give a Weasley promise. Just your promise, Ron. Can you give me that? Then you can take as long as you want until you're ready. I'll wait." whispered Hermione.

Ron turned then. His eyes were wet and he could hardly talk, "I promise Hermione, If you'll still have me... One day I will marry you."

Ron was grateful the Great Hall was empty because then he was sobbing in her arms with a mixture of joy and confusion, with shame and disgust at himself, and with gratitude and awe at the goodness and cleverness of the one he loved.

"I promise I'll have you Ron. I promise too." whispered Hermione.




Author's Notes



Comments and reviews are welcome and very encouraging. Thank you.
:)
 

- Hippothestrowl



Chapter 9: The Welcome
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Ginny and Harry had spent Saturday morning at the Burrow. Mrs. Weasley had not slept much after receiving Ginny's owl the evening before saying they were coming for a quick visit and to tell them some good news. She lay staring at the dark ceiling. I'll give her good news when she gets here - leaving me wondering and squirming. Must be they're getting wed - must be. But I daren't think it in case it's not that. But it must be. My little girl is to be married. My little baby. But I mustn't think it. What else could it be? Another medal? Head Girl? She wouldn't come home just to tell us that. Been offered a high-paid job for next year when she leaves school? She would say so in the message and perhaps come home to chat about the details.

Molly Weasley got out of bed once again and read the message for the twentieth time.


Mum, Dad!

Harry and me. Coming home for a quick visit just for Saturday morning with some good news. Love and kisses.

Ginny & Harry


Molly paced up and down the bedroom until she heard her husband's half-asleep murmurings telling her to give it a rest. She went out to Ginny's room to give him some peace and looked around. She looked at her girl's bed with the funny stitching on the edge of the quilt. Her wardrobe with the broken catch. The little desk Arthur had struggled to get her when Ron first went away to Hogwarts leaving Ginny all alone. Her OWL certificates in a card frame Spello-taped on the wall because they hadn't got a proper wood frame. Molly Weasley burst into tears and sat down on the edge of her daughter's bed. Arthur heard her and came in and sat with her with his arm around her shoulders and they looked around Ginny's room for a while.

"Molly, They wouldn't say something as important as they're getting married in a silly message. Ginny would want to tell us properly." whispered Arthur. "There's nothing else that they wouldn't just put in the message even if they came home. That's all it can be. We're going to be really disappointed if it's not now anyway so we might as well believe it."

Of course. Silly me. She wouldn't want to owl us 'By the way I'm getting married.' Not my Ginny. That's it. That's wonderful. They're getting wed. They're really getting wed. My little Ginny.

She kissed her husband and they went back to bed and managed to fall asleep after a while.

Molly Weasley was very tired by morning but beaming with delight when the pair arrived and both she and her husband were overjoyed when the youngsters confirmed their greatest hopes that they were to be married.

"It's wonderful, mum." Ginny held out her hand to show her ring finger.

Mrs. Weasley had already been trying to get a glimpse of her daughter's ring and it looked a fine but normal ring from a pace away but now she was delighted to look more closely. She saw the band which presently had a barely visible crystal-like appearance. The gems were soft glinting pastel shades flowing slowly over it indicating Ginny's contentment. Gradual slow flares of warmer richer colours every few seconds were her happy transient emotions. Molly held her daughter's hand and felt the fine old magic of the ring. Her senses told her more.

"It's... there's a promise... This is wonderful. This is rare." Molly attracted her husband over to see. Ginny showed them the locket, now a faint translucent gold, which had been partly concealed below her neckline.

"Well, that is something very special." remarked Mr. Weasley and he gave his daughter a big affectionate hug. "I think you've done very well for yourself Ginny and I'm very happy knowing you'll be in safe hands."

"Thanks dad. You've always kept me safe too." said Ginny, and her locket fluttered through pale cyans and blues and back to gold again.

Harry felt even more part of the family now just by telling Mr and Mrs. Weasley. He wondered if he could start calling them mum and dad. He wondered if he should - but he was too embarrassed to ask. They spent the morning chatting and sending more messages and owling Charlie. Bill and Fleur even managed to floo over for an hour and George who was working in his shop on his busiest day but found time to poke his grinning head through the flames and threatened to get them 'something special' for the wedding.

Shortly after a big lunch the happy couple had to make an effort to break away from the comfortable air of happy excitement at the Burrow. Harry had never really thought of this - not experienced Ginny's home in this way before. It was unexpected. It was lovely to share his happiness with a family especially since it was family business; his family now. Harry had never known anything like this with the Dursleys. He felt it must have been fantastic to have been Ron as a child with all his brothers and a sister and real parents right there in your home. He wished now they'd brought Ron back with them this trip. He wondered when Ron and Hermione... Harry sighed. If they ever do get engaged and come back here just like this would Ron ask Harry back with him? He hoped so. Just for this lovely family excitement.

"I hope we have family too. Nobody shut away in a bloody cupboard under the stairs. Lots of kids everywhere. It's lovely. I really, really enjoyed that." he said to Ginny as they shared the floo back to Hogwarts leaving Molly to doze off in her armchair by the fire and Arthur charming the lunch dishes and plates to wash themselves very quietly for once.
 

~~~~~~~~~~~~

"Nothing!" sighed Harry as he flew the last of the illustrated atlases gently onto the top of the discarded pile of geography and geology books and magazines in the corner of the Gryffindor reading room. It balanced there for a few moments while Harry watched it lazily then it slipped down. Harry shrugged and glanced over at Hermione and Ron who were searching through the final books from the Hogwarts' Library they had accumulated. They were looking for any pictures of volcanoes and passing them to Harry for evaluation but they had been passing less and less for the last hour.

"Most wizards are not really big on geography, Harry." explained Ron, they generally apparate or floo from place to place without actually seeing much in between.

"These three are the only ones that might be of help and two don't look hopeful." said Harry, looking at the spine of one. "This 'Stoddeley's Guide to Natural Portkeys by Gavienus Stoddeley' might be of use if there is one near the mountain."

Hermione looked up from a boring list of rock formations to exclaim, "You're not going to go to it though Harry! What are you talking about? We only want to find where it is then let the ministry worry about it."

"I know. I'm just saying. Might be useful." muttered Harry.

Hermione looked at Ron and rolled her eyes. Ron just shook his head to indicate she should let it go.

"I like this one best, 'Preed's Peaks Vol. 6'. It's beautifully drawn with fine detail. This one's not got our mountain but I'm going back to the library and see if I can find the other volumes." said Harry a little more enthusiastically.

"You won't find them Harry. Honest - we've scoured every shelf for these we already have. Ginny is still down there checking to see if there is anything we might have missed but really, we know there are no more geography or geology-related books in the Hogwarts' Library." said Ron.

"Oh well, scratch that then." sighed Harry floating Volume 6 across to the discard pile in the corner.

"What good will that do?" asked Ron.

Hermione laughed, "It's just muggle talk for scrub it - remove it from the list."

"But we haven't got a list." protested Ron.

"Hello? Earth to Ron Weasley - It's just a figure of speech." said Hermione.

"Earth? What is that supposed to mean?" Said Ron, rather exasperated with the fruitless effort they had been making.

"Cut it out you two before you start! Not today." protested Harry.

Ron wondered what he was supposed to cut out. Bloody muggle-talk he thought but he got the general idea so he kept his mouth shut.

"This one, 'Highlands and Lowlands by Maucolyn Thornburgh' is just descriptions, no pictures. But they are good descriptions and there are lots of them. Gonna take me a week to search it though." grumbled Harry.

Hermione made a suggestion, "We can Geminio it a few times. If, let's see, four or five of us do a section each and mark any actual volcanoes for you to look at. When I looked in that earlier most of the entries are flatlands or low hills anyway; there are very few mountains. I think we can do it in an hour."

"Not today. I've had enough once we've finished these last few." sighed Ron.

"Maybe we should ask someone." suggested Hermione. Although she trusted Harry, it was difficult to keep motivated when there was no visible problem, "Remind me why we are doing all this ourselves? The Ministry of Magic and the Aurors ought to have a team working on this so we can get on with our schoolwork."

"Despite my fame, most of them won't want to believe anything based on a notion so tenuous and vague as a memory of a volcano. With Mad-Eye and Tonks gone, Dumbledore, and... I can only think of say Kingsley who would trust me but even he would have a hard time pushing through action on this. I've learned from bitter experience that the only ones you can trust to support you are your friends. If we can just find something tangible, something really persuasive..."

"Come on you lot. Have we got to do this all ourselves?" shouted Seamus from the common room. The other Gryffindors were putting up some cards, signs, and other decorations. Hannah and Luna had been given temporary honorary Gryffindor status for the day and Luna was already here. She was magically painting a huge "Welcome Back Neville" sign, animated with various plants and foliage effects for each letter of the message. Dean was adding sounds and a Sousa brass band effect. They were also smuggling in various foodstuffs and drinks to make a small party of it later that evening.

"Studying - Important - Can't stop yet!" Harry shouted back.

"Yeah right - Since when has geography been taught at Hogwarts?" came back the reply. "Think we're deaf and stupid?"

"Yes." replied Harry and grinned at Ron.

"How about Professor Worley? She's probably good at detective work like this." suggested Ron, then looking at the sceptical expression on their faces he added, "Uncovering Dark Arts and stuff is what she does right? Look, she's Defence teacher but how can you defend if you've not found something to defend against yet?"

"Yeah, we get it Ron." said Harry sarcastically, "but she's not really a friend who is likely to support a crazy... yeah well, it does sound crazy though I say it myself."

"Reckon you fancy her, Ron." smirked Hermione.

"Do not." retorted Ron.

"Ever since she got Draco in that arm lock..." said Hermione.

The three fell about laughing at the memory as the door opened and Ginny came in and joined them in the reading room. "Any luck?"

"Not yet. Did you get Hannah to come?" asked Hermione.

"Yes, she's studying but we'll sneak her into the common room later just before Neville is due. Be a nice surprise for him when he gets here."

"OK then Ron. Why not go now? Worley'll probably be in her office or in her own room ... Just be careful of that arm lock though, eh?" said Harry with a grin and Hermione laughed with him.

"Me? Why me? It was just a suggestion." replied Ron, "Anyway, it's your vision. I can't describe the mountain can I?"

Harry just grinned at him.

"You're winding me up aren't you?" said Ron with a wry smile. After seven years he had absorbed more muggle-talk than he realized from Harry and Hermione.

Harry play-acted a big sigh, "Oh well, personally I think you're missing a big opportunity to learn some new moves. I'll be back in a few hours hopefully - tomorrow morning at the latest." said Harry as he got to his feet and walked to the door.

"Harry Potter if you're not back in a few minutes then I'll show you a few moves of my own!" exclaimed Ginny and her pendant flashed brightly for a moment.

"It's out of my control, Ginny. Once I get pinned down in her bedroom with that armlock there's nothing I can do but submit." said Harry in mock earnestness. He just managed to dodge a copy of "Wizards' Guide to Exits and Escapes" as he slipped through the door and pulled it shut behind him.
 

~~~~~~~~~~~~

Harry found Professor Worley in her office on the second floor. He stopped and stared as he entered at her invitation.

"What is it?" asked Worley, seeing the look on Harry's face.

Harry regained his composure then said bitterly, "Sorry Professor. I just realized I've not been in here since... The last time I was here I was threatened with the Cruciatus Curse... and before that I got this." He held out his right arm to show the scars on the back of his hand.

"Umbridge?"

Harry nodded. He looked around. The office was more utilitarian now but anything was better than that pink and lace. Deep in thought he murmured out loud, "A lot of kids suffered here. First years crying..."

Worley was studying Harry intently, gauging his feelings, allowing him time, but eventually she said, "What was it you wanted to see me about, Harry?"

Harry came back to the present. He told her about his near-death experience - the curse and his memory of the mountain. He did not really expect her to be too interested - Harry only wanted to know if she had any suggestions how he might find the mountain - but Worley was quite alarmed. She looked shocked at first but soon recovered.

"Have you reported this to the Ministry of Magic? To the headmistress?" asked the professor.

"No, nobody - they won't take this too seriously unless I can find something concrete to show them."

Worley pondered this for a while then said, "Probably you're right. Listen, Harry, if there is anything in this then it is possible... You realize there are still Death Eaters and sympathisers out there?"

"Yes, of course."

"What I mean is, you're not out of danger yet. If word got out about this..."

"Nobody knows but me and my friends. I've learnt the hard way not to waste my time trying to persuade people to believe me."

"Very well. All I can do for now is make some stealthy investigations to see if I can find out anything. Meanwhile, you're doing the right thing. Until we can find something to show the Ministry we'd better keep quiet."

Harry gave the teacher what few details he had about the mountain and Worley promised to contact Harry if she found out anything. Harry was glad to get out of that room; it depressed him.
 

~~~~~~~~~~~~

Ginny screamed as Harry crawled into the Gryffindor common room. His robes were torn and he dragged himself along by one arm croaking, "She got me! Oh God it was awful. I tried to escape but once she had me in her clutches I was unable to resist."

Ron stared in horror.

Hermione was laughing, "Harry! That is the worst performance I've ever seen." She stopped laughing as she looked at Ginny.

Ginny stormed off up to the girls' dormitory in a huff as everyone else began laughing. She had had a bad scare and her pendant was flaming red.

"Reparo! Honestly Harry you've..." Hermione lowered her wand as her spell restored Harry's robes.

Harry got slowly up from the floor feeling like a Dementor on its day off.

"You'll have to pay big time for this Harry - you know that. You'll have to make it up to Ginny. I'll go up and speak to her." Hermione turned away and followed Ginny up the stairs.

Ron had a big grin on his face by now, "You got me going there for a minute, mate. I didn't know what to..."

"Stupid really. I didn't think." muttered Harry. "Anyway, Worley is going to see if she can find out anything-"

Hermione was screaming, running down in terror from upstairs, "Ginny! Ginny! What's she done? She can't have..." She ran to the window and looked out.

Harry and Ron stared, sick with fear. Hermione turned slowly around. There was a grim smile on her face.

"Now you know what it feels like." It was Ginny talking from the top of the stairs.

"Bloody Hell, Ginny! One shock is enough!" spluttered Ron.

Harry felt rather weak. He finally gasped, "I didn't think, honestly I just thought everybody would laugh."

Ron exploded, "Ginny, Harry didn't actually mean to scare anybody - but YOU did! And you Hermione! You shouldn't have done that. You did it deliberately! That was worse!"

"He's right!" said Dean.

"What's it bloody well got to do with you!" shouted Ginny at Dean.

"Now see what you've done, Ron!" yelled Hermione.

"I haven't done anything! Don't have a go at me!" replied Ron, angrily.

"Just calm down everybody!" shouted Harry.

"But it was your damn fault in the first..." Ginny tailed off, looking towards the door. Everybody turned.

"How long have you been there, Neville?" asked Hermione.

Neville grinned, "Long enough to see everything's normal around here! For a while I was worried there might be some soppy, sentimental kissing and hugging and a welcome back celebration! Good thing I got back early."

The atmosphere lightened up quickly as they all gathered around Neville to congratulate his recovery and direct him to the food and drink. Sousa struck up an upbeat tune and foliage sprouted and squirmed to display Luna's message.

Ginny easily forgave Harry and cautioned him lightly, "No more practical jokes, OK? I've seen you lying dead I thought - and once in my life is enough. Look I was supposed to get Hannah here before Neville got back." then she gave Harry a quick kiss and slipped out and brought back Hannah.

Neville was quick to give his fiance a big kiss, several actually, and completely loved the whistles and cheers from the surrounding crowd. He felt incredibly free. There was no need to believe he had to hide his feelings for Hannah anymore.

The welcome back party turned somehow into a double engagement party when Neville formally announced what everyone already knew but he was proud to do it. Then Harry also reaffirmed his and Ginny's betrothal which everyone also knew all about but it was fun to make an official announcement. What was intended to be a couple of hours celebration ran well into the early hours at which time some of the younger Gryffindors had drifted off to their dormitories to sleep. Much of the ale consumed was not just butter beer so everyone was rather merry and content.

Neville was sat in his favourite leather chair with Hannah on his knee. Ron and Hermione were curled up together on the rug near the fire and Harry and Ginny were not far from them. Luna and Seamus were sat at a little table playing out some kind of card game that Luna had invented called Reverse Poker. She was teaching Seamus as they went along but she wasn't giving much away because she was wearing her spectrespecs. Neville was speaking softly to Hannah but if he had intended his conversation to be private then the drinks he had consumed had clouded his judgement and most of them nearby were listening in to fragments of it.

"Hannah, when we were with my parents the other night, did you notice anything - anything... special." asked Neville.

"What do you mean, Neville? They were very quiet." replied Hannah.

"I just wondered if you... knew anything."

"About what?"

"Since that night there is something different. The healers are puzzled." said Neville, "My parents, the healers think they are taking more notice of their surroundings... I think so too and..." Neville paused.

"What is it?" asked Hannah. Everyone else now was more attentive, listening in. Seamus had hesitated on his turn at the card game.

"Mum looked at me." Neville hesitated thinking how vague this all must sound, "I mean, she looked at me differently."

"You mean... she recognized you?" whispered Hannah.

"Not exactly... I'm not sure. No I don't think so. But it was... I mean not as her son but maybe she is sort of noticing me as a regular visitor. It's just different. Usually I'm just nobody to her. Now she was noticing me - differently."

"What do the healers say?" asked Hannah.

"They sensed something too but they can't really determine anything. It was the nurses and orderlies who noticed most because they spend more time with them. They felt... maybe she... both of them really but mainly my mum... they felt she was sort of looking at them more... awake. It's very hard to describe."

There was a long silence. Ginny looked at Harry meaningfully but said nothing.

"Sometimes things are not what they seem at all." said Luna quietly but clearly in the silence. "If it were me I wouldn't want you to realize how good it was too soon so I would pretend it was less than it really was."

Neville looked across at Luna but she was facing only towards Seamus and hugging her card hand while Seamus stared back at her. They could not read her expression because of her specs. Both Neville and Seamus were wondering what she meant. Seamus looked at his cards. He had two pairs, threes and eights. Did she mean she suspected his hand was too good so he should discard from the pairs? Was she teaching him or playing to beat him now? Was she even talking about the game?

Ginny squeezed Harry's hand. She did not know what was going on but she felt sure that Harry did.

Seamus discarded his spare and drew a nine. Luna pushed a couple more Every Flavour Beans into the pot from the large pile she was accumulating and said, "I'll take pity. I can't see you." She was smiling but looking directly at Harry who remained poker faced and innocent-looking. That look was not missed by Ginny.

"Does that mean I don't need to show my hand - so I win?" asked Seamus.

"No, it means I have to show you my hand so I win. I've only got one pair." said Luna, taking the pot.

Seamus scratched his head, "You cleaned me out. Will you take an IOU then we can continue."

"No, here's my UOMe and some beans then if you win you can give the UOMe back to me."

"What if I throw away the UOMe?"

"You can't. It's got a Stayclose charm on it."

"Are you sure about all this?" grinned Seamus, "I've got a feeling I'm being had - like you can see my hand."

"Well of course I can. Why do you think I'm wearing these specs? Do you mean you've not been cheating? No wonder you are losing so badly. I thought I explained that." Luna smiled sweetly. "In that case you forfeit for breaking the Must Cheat Rule."
 

~~~~~~~~~~~~

"Luna, we're good friends right?" said Ginny as they nibbled at a few sweetmeats on the side table.

"You want to know about Mr. and Mrs. Longbottom." said Luna.

"Has... someone told you something?" asked Ginny.

"No... I just worked it out. I'm a Ravenclaw. It's quite simple."

"Worked what out?" asked Ginny.

"Where there's the most powerful magic there's the most powerful wizard don't you think?" said Luna enigmatically.

"But Voldemort is dead! Professor Dumbledore is dead!"

"Someone else is now the most powerful wizard." replied Luna.

"Nobody could... Nobody could help them... Not unless... You mean..." Ginny gasped and her eyes widened.

"It must be terribly difficult to disturb someone's rest when you love them." Luna smiled sadly at Ginny, reading her thoughts.
 

~~~~~~~~~~~~

The dormitory was empty except for Seamus snoring heavily at the far end. Ron and Hermione were still downstairs having fallen asleep on the hearth rug. Neville was still talking to Hannah down there. Harry was too tired and too happy to bother undressing. He would just lay down on his bed and get a few hours sleep before the new day began.

"Harry." said Ginny. She stood at the top of the dormitory stairs.

Harry looked at Ginny. He knew the less she said then usually the more important it was.

"Yes, Ginny."

"You kept it didn't you?"

Harry remained silent for a while then, "I did not intend to keep it. But I delayed. The longer I put it off the more I realized I could not desecrate Professor Dumbledore's tomb even though I kind of had his permission. I placed the elder wand in a chest in my... in our vault in Gringott's. I intended for it to remain there until after my death. No one else could then master it."

"Where is it now?"

Harry did not answer but Ginny saw his eyes flick briefly towards his trunk at the end of the bed.

"We must never speak of this to anyone, Ginny." said Harry.

"Luna already worked it out. Whenever it is used it leaves a kind of trail of magical greatness." said Ginny.

"But few are able or inclined to interpret that trail. Luna is exceptional. She will not speak of it again."

"No, she would not even speak openly to me." said Ginny.

"I cannot say that I will never use it again. But it will be returned to our vault and there it will remain."

"Will they recover? Neville's mum and dad I mean?" asked Ginny

"I don't know Ginny. I don't see how they can be the same as before but I felt the immense power, Ginny - even using that simple healing spell that Worley taught us. Using that wand is beyond anything I've known before. I'm confident the Longbottoms will improve in some degree even if it is a very slow recovery. Neville suspects it is something to do with Hannah being there - power of love - or perhaps that he has found his soul mate and it released heaven's influence or something deeply mystical like that. Let him continue to think that way."

"Harry."

"Yes, Gin?"

"I think I've found my soul mate too."
 

~~~~~~~~~~~~

Professor McGonagall looked at the dreadful mess in the Gryffindor common room. Colored confetti, charmed streamers, feathers, food, even sleeping students, all littered the floor. Torn decorations hung in tatters from floating dirigible plums. A muffled Sousa tuba faintly sounded from somewhere below a pile of blankets. It was Sunday morning and the few students who were awake stared in disbelief.

"Headmistress!" said Hermione, as she rose from the hearth and shook ashes from her hair.

"I am still the head of this house too! I want every Gryffindor here in attendance within five minutes. I will wait." McGonagall frowned down at a first year who scurried by with an indeterminate sandwich he had been trying to toast back to life with a wand spell.

McGonagall noted that there was a very strange student contorted in a leather armchair in a dark corner off to one side of the cold fireplace just beginning to stir as Hermione ran around waking everyone. As she watched she noted at least three or four arms and the same number of legs began to unravel and stick from various corners of a heavy blanket. There was little that McGonagall did not know about transfiguration but this eluded her understanding for a few seconds until she suddenly perceived what she was looking at.

"Mr. Longbottom! and... Miss Abbott!" McGonagall's surprise was not held back from her face.

"Are there any more of you in there?" she asked drily.

"Not so fast, young lady!" McGonagall called as Hannah tried to slip away and back to her own common room, "Please wait here with the others."

McGonagall raised her voice to reach all of the rooms in the Gryffindor Tower, "Do we have any more Hufflepuffs, Ravenclaws... Heaven forbid - Slytherins, in here?"

Luna crept slowly down from the girls' dormitory.

"Well! I'm pleased to see one of you is at least in the right type of place where she ought to be." again the sardonic voice dominated the room. McGonagall cast her patronus to inform Professors Flitwick and Sprout of the whereabouts of their missing students and the silvery blue cat leapt through the door and disappeared from view.

"We... that is, we Gryffindors, we gave them temporary honorary Gryffindor status because of their er... because of their courage and..." even Hermione faltered and tailed off under McGonagall's silent glare.

"Is that everyone? ... Very well. When I point my wand at you I wish you to walk over and stand by the door." McGonagall began singling out individual students who glumly walked across to join the growing group. Most were senior students, Harry, Ron, Hermione, Neville, among them and they began to feel that they were being regarded as ringleaders and more responsible.

Finally, McGonagall walked over to inspect the students gathered near the door. She uttered something softly and a purple sock flew from somewhere and hovered in front of her, "Yours I think?" she propelled it to Dean who was standing with one bare foot and a shoe in his hand. McGonagall shook her head, "I won't ask why that one is purple while the one you are wearing is bright green."

"Well! You'll have to do. This way! Follow me please." she led the group out and down from the Tower.
 

~~~~~~~~~~~~

As the group followed McGonagall into Hogwarts' Entrance Hall they were all truly astonished to see not only students already gathered there from other houses but also many house-elves from the kitchen. Most of the teachers were also lined up along one wall, Hagrid among them. McGonagall addressed them all:

"We have had to delay this meeting until we could get everyone present at one time." She particularly eyed Luna and Neville when she said this.

"It has been our wish to keep this occasion very short, rather low-profile and informal because we know many of you have suffered the most aggressive attention of the press, officialdom, and other interests to the point where it must have become tiresome." She looked at Harry as she spoke.

"Let me say first that Mr. Ron Weasley is here not only on his own behalf but also to represent his brother Fred Weasley." Ron gulped at this.

"Likewise, Mr. Dennis Creavey is here both for himself and to represent his brother Colin Creavey.

"We, the teachers of Hogwarts wish simply to honour and remember the Hogwarts' students who worked for, and fought for, and in some cases, gave their lives for, the protection of this, the Hogwarts School. We also honour the house-elves who also risked all and fought for this school. As long as this school stands, all your names will be remembered. We are so very proud of you." McGonagall glanced across at Flitwick who flicked his wand.

The great canvas that had hung in the Entrance Hall was swept aside from the wall it had covered since the start of the school year. Beneath it, the marks of battle still showed. Long streaks were gouged and cut through broken stonework where misdirected curses had ploughed. Great burns and stains and scorch marks covered much of this area and in some parts the edges of stones had melted and flowed down. The area was bordered by magically repaired, clean, scrubbed, whole stones. So abrupt was the division that it was clear that the damage had been far more extensive and this was but a sample area left unrepaired.

Centred within and upon this corrupted section was a new stone, very long and smooth and pure, of black polished marble flecked with veins of dark reds and blues and greys. Deeply etched into its surface were two lists, one being the names of students and elves that had fought in the Great Battle and the other those who had formed the resistance known as Dumbledore's Army. Many students were in both and McGonagall read them all out to the assembly.

"In addition, we wish to especially honour a former Hogwarts' employee who gave his life that others might defend this school and defeat the enemy. It is unlikely that all of us would have survived without this sacrifice. We wish to honour and remember the house-elf Dobby."

McGonagall paused for a few moments' silent remembrance after which she said that any students who wished to, could remain to look at the commemoration and spend further time in thought.

Of all the ceremonies and awards that Harry Potter had attended, this was the one of which he was most proud - to see his name associated with the school that had been his home and which he had loved, even through the bad times, since he was eleven years of age.





Author's Notes



Comments and reviews are welcome and very encouraging. Thank you.
:)
 

- Hippothestrowl














Chapter 10: Professor Bingley
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Harry was worried. Schoolwork was so important and there was so much of it that it was easy to forget the deadliness of Voldemort's memory. Why does he still linger? When will he leave me alone! He couldn't even bloody die without leaving this behind to torment me. Perhaps that's all it is. A deliberate trick to torture me. I hope that's all it is. I just want a normal life. Is that so much to ask?

"This meeting is first of all to summarise and review the situation with everybody here at last." said Harry. "It's getting serious. We've made no progress. We've not a clue what we're up against. We might all be... The world might be disintregrated tomorrow for all we know."

The original three bond-pairs were in the old classroom on the first floor: Ron and Hermione, Harry and Ginny, Neville and Luna. It was a cold night but as usual they were all sitting relaxed in a semi-circle in the darkened room before a blazing fire with just dim candlelight here and there. Luna's pottery animals cast long shadows up the wall dancing hypnotically in the flickering light. Ron lazily levitated another couple of small logs onto the fire.

"Neville, what about you and Hannah? Is she OK with this? - With you and Luna I mean?" asked Harry.

"No, she doesn't understand it and she's not happy about it but she accepts it. She trusts me. I just wish she could be a part of it."

"Well you know the answer to that - very few are ready. In the whole school, us six are the only ones and I've looked, believe me."

"Me too." said Ron.

"I know. I know. But still It feels strange." Neville turned to Luna, "Luna and I, we've discussed it and we work great together in this - no problem there - but still I feel very odd doing this pair-bonding thing separate from my future wife."

"Nothing we can do - she's a Hufflepuff-"

A log crackled loudly in the fireplace and sparks raced up the flue.

"What the hell has that got to do with it! She's not stupid!" Neville was angry. Any criticism of Hannah was now like a knife into his feelings. Steady on! This is Harry! Yes but is that all he thinks of Hufflepuffs? Of Hannah? It's as bad as the Carrows disgust with muggles.

"I didn't say she is! ... Sorry Nev, what I mean is, Hannah's got her own great qualities ... But it does seem to me that Ravenclaws are most suitable for this mind work and then Gryffindors second. Ron's exceptional. That's all I'm saying."

Luna tried to calm down Neville while Harry continued. Ron stirred the fire absent-mindedly with a levitating poker.

"...and that brings me to the second point of this meeting - well I'll come back to that in a minute. Ron, can you first tell everybody what you were telling me earlier." said Harry.

"Yes, we were only going to do that one session to verify the imbalance caused by the world curse which we did. You'd expect it to be a waste of time trying to work against something that huge but I've been thinking - and Hermione and me - we've done one or two exploratory sessions on our own..."

"What! I thought we weren't suppose to? We were supposed to always have a minimum of three?" exploded Harry.

"Calm down, calm down. Let me finish. I know. Ideally that is true, especially as a general rule. And 'specially beginners. But I've now done this so much I'm confident I can do it even on my own - steady on - let me finish! I'm not planning to do it on my own. I'm just saying I can. And in an emergency I would - I don't care what anyone says. Anyway, I don't think any of you are ready for that so don't anyone else do it." Ron paused for breath.

"Where's this all leading Ron?" asked Harry. He was tired of everybody doing their own thing. Hang on! Isn't that what I was always doing? Yes but that was different. Was it?

"Will you let me finish? So anyway, we've done three sessions and..."

"It's THREE now? Not one or two?" said Ginny.

"Will you please leave it out and let me get on with it?" He wandlessly flung the floating poker down into the hearth.

"You're getting good at that." murmured Hermione.

"Let him have his say." said Neville who had somewhat regained his composure.

"It was important. We had short sessions. Always two of us and I know what I'm doing. Do you think I'd risk Hermione if I didn't? And Hermione and I are now so close there is no way we can get separated in the mind realm. I'm certain that's impossible. Trust me on that. And I think the slight risk was worth it so you have to live with it. We're talking about a world curse for Merlin's sake. Doesn't that overrule what happens to me - Ron Weasley is not that important. Anyway, it's my view that it might be possible to do some effective work - at least to delay the curse if nothing else - but we need as many of us as often as possible. Right. Done. Over to you Mr. Harry Go By The Rules Potter." Ron relaxed back in his chair.

"OK, fine! I was just narked because nobody even knew about it, Ron." said Harry. "Anyway, going on from what Ron said we need to consider can we recruit anybody else from outside somehow - maybe even have the sessions away from the school?"

Luna was saddened by the conflict and kept silent. It's so clear now. Misunderstandings. Confusion. We're all friends. We all care about each other. But feelings get in the way... How freeing it is in the mind realm! Leave behind emotions, fears, and conflict. Just pure character, intelligence, meaning. Perhaps we should do that first and talk after. Still, that's to come. It will wash away this confusion.

"One problem is that David told us that it's usually the younger mind that is open to this work so it's usually kids so that limits the field." said Ron.

"Ron, what sort of numbers are we talking about to be of any use?" asked Neville.

"I'd like to see at least one session every day with ten of us." said Ron.

"Ten? Where we..." said Ginny. Her pendant slightly turned grey-green for a few moments. Wake up Ron! No way we can get that many.

"Ron, I think you're worth two of us and it may be that someone else is too." said Luna.

"Who did you have in mind?" asked Harry.

"Remember Professor Bingley was to join us and then we were diverted to help Sephany." said Luna.

"That's right - and she's got an amazing mind - maybe she would be worth two as well?" said Neville.

Ron was quick to respond, "Yeah, and maybe she'll only be worth a half - there's no telling. And she'll be a beginner. But still, worth a try. And that's another thing. You all got better and better with practice - we all did - so doing this everyday we'll all improve."

"OK - we're all in favour of Bingley?" asked Harry. There were yays all round.

"Right. So the other thing is I want everybody to keep their eyes open over the next few months for anyone else who might be ready outside the school - when you go on trips - when you're on holiday, or just shopping, whatever. Just one person might make a big difference. You all know you can sense they are 'ready' just by listening to them talk for a while."

Ginny began to feel this was all amateurish. Harry is just trying to do the leadership thing but he's clutching at straws. He knows it's hopeless. But he beat bloody Voldemort! He's right. We must be positive. Come on, Ginny! Think about all that Harry did in his very first year at Hogwarts!

"Don't forget first years. We have new students at Hogwarts. Has anyone even really got to know any of them?" asked Ginny.

"Good point." said Ron.

"Right, now Hermione has another idea. Hermione?" said Harry.

"Some of you don't know that a few years back I used a time turner to cram in more lessons. It helped for a while but it made me really tired so I handed it back in. But it made me think about another way of cramming in more hours in one day. There's a potion I tried which let me manage comfortably on only three or four hours sleep a night. It was OK but I kind of got bored studying in the night on my own. It was like being... anyway, the thing is it works so if we all used that we could have our meetings very late or even in the middle of the night and still be fresh the next morning."

"Aren't we doing enough already - studying all day and most evenings!" complained Ginny, "We'll be exhausted!" Stop being so negative! Think of the group! Think of Harry.

"No you won't. Aren't you listening?" Why can't they reason it out? It's free time. "You wake up fresh as normal. All it does is give you a longer day. It's not as if the mentasphere is hard work - it's a relaxing, pleasant experience. Sleep's a waste of time anyway. What use is it? Hey! I've got an idea. Let's all fall unconscious every night why don't we and waste our lives away!" said Hermione.

"Suits me." said Ron with a grin.

"Yes well you're unconscious through most of the day anyway so you wouldn't notice." said Hermione.

"It would be nice if Professor Bingley got permission from the headmistress so we don't have to sneak around like thieves in the night. We're not doing anything wrong." said Luna.

They continued their discussion for some time then ended with a short mind session and finished for the evening. As everyone was leaving, Harry extinguished the fire and started to snuff out the candles.

"Harry?" said Ron.

"Yeah, Ron?"

"Did you notice? Luna's different. Neville thinks so too. Sharper. Smarter - no not smarter but more focused. Less scatter-brained. I can't pin it down. More confident I think. What happened in that forest when she ran away - do you know? You were talking to her that time in Charms."

"I can't say, Ron. I promised never to speak to anyone about it except Ginny - and don't talk to her about it either." warned Harry, "Anyway, she didn't run away - you know Draco cursed her."

"Oh yeah. Nearly got me too."

~~~~~~~~~~~~


Harry and Ginny leaned back in their chairs towards the end of their next General Magical Knowledge Class. This was everyone's favourite lesson because there was no pressure and Professor Bingley always found a way to make it interesting. She had related a short story and had asked the class to name eight possible reasons why the main character, Maldreth, had said that Eloise no longer had any magical powers.

"She was old, very old, and her powers had faded." suggested Seamus.

"Age in itself will not reduce a person's magic but you're on the right track." smiled Professor Bingley.

"If magic is never practiced then over a very long time it will fade just as the muscles weaken without exercise." said Hermione. Good one! It must be five years since I read that!

"Correct." Bingley caught Hermione's words in a listening charm and spun them up to display on the board behind her.

"A dark wizard can leach away magical power with prolonged and repeated curses." Neville said which caused a stir among those who knew about his parents. Bingley spun his words up to the display without comment.

"Obliviate might make you forget you had magic?" suggested Stebbins.

"It does not strictly reduce a person's magic but I might allow that because effectively a wizard or witch can no longer use magic."

"Yeah but her memory might be restored." said Ron.

"Not necessarily. It is possible to completely wipe some memories." said Bingley.

"But couldn't someone just tell her?" said Seamus.

"Some people just cannot accept what you tell them without proof." said Luna. She was sitting on her own more and more now that Ginny tended to sit with Harry. She did not seem concerned when there were a few sniggers heard around the classroom, especially from the Slytherins. Her mind was clear.

"Exactly! It's not enough to be told. It has to be felt." said the professor.

"But if you keep explaining it long enough you can persuade them surely?" said Hermione.

"Some people will never believe no matter what you do." said Luna.

"Very good. I will allow this Obliviate proposal then." said Bingley and spun it up.

"She's dead." said Abigail which caused an eruption of laughter from everyone so she added, "Eloise I mean."

"Valid proposal. Maldreth was only explaining why she was no longer a threat so he might have had a reason not to mention her death. Anyway, it is a cause of cessation of magical powers." she spun it up then there was silence for a long time.

"The sacrifice spell!" exclaimed Hannah. "Wasn't there someone in History class who sacrificed their powers to save someone?"

Neville smiled proudly and almost looked towards Harry. See? Hannah can be as smart as anyone.

Bingley smiled. "We're out of time. There's your homework. See how many of the other three reasons you can discover and also tell me more about the sacrifice spell. I'll give you a hint. It's not called the sacrifice spell."

"Do they have to be permanent? I mean if I kept stunning Ron every ten minutes he couldn't do any magic could he?" said Harry with a grin.

"He would eventually die though so that falls into a kind of slow death group for instance so I would treat that the same as someone who falls ill and dies even if it takes all week is dead at the end of it. Sorry - I have to lump that under the death reason."

"Sleep! Sleep!" shouted Ginny.

"Suspended animation!" yelled Dean above the gathering noise of students preparing to leave.

"OK - you are all clearly stumbling onto one of the three missing reasons anyway - the various groups of disabling spells where the victim is magically helpless but not dying so find three examples of that - and they must be permanent, irreversible. They all will count as one reason. That's it until next week! Hurry - don't miss your next class." Bingley had raised her voice above the noise of scraping chairs and student chatter. She was gathering up her papers and shooing the students out of her classroom. Ginny and Harry held back.

"What is it Ginny? Harry?" asked Bingley as the hubbub died down and the three were left alone.

"Professor, You remember David Grey and what I told you about the mental realm?" said Harry.

"Ah yes, I wish I could have..."

"We need more help. Would you still consider it?" said Ginny.

"I definitely would! That was one of my... But is there something wrong?"

"If you would be willing to come along to tonight's meeting we will explain."

~~~~~~~~~~~~


After coming out of the mentasphere experience they waited for Professor Bingley's reaction. They all knew that it took some time to adjust through the exit euphoria the first time. She had trio'd with Neville and Luna and their nods indicated that all had gone very well. At Luna's suggestion they had started the mind session early and were going to talk after when they were all calm.

"Thank you so much. That was so wonderful." said Bingley, staring distantly into the log fire that warmed the room.

"You understand now what we mean by the bad outbalancing the good?" asked Ron.

"Yes - but what is the cause?"

Harry explained about his near-death experience and the world curse and their attempts to locate the mountain. There was more silence as a shocked Bingley absorbed this.

"We've searched the library, bookshops, everywhere we can think of. I know you are well travelled professor. We'd welcome any suggestions you might have."

Bingley shook her head. "No. I do have a range of geography books in my collection but mountains are not really central to my interests. I have the European volume of Preed though so that's worth a look."

"Preed? You mean 'Preed's Peaks'? Is that the one with Italy and Greece in it? I think that's the version we've already got over there on the shelf. I remember Italy. I went through that three times. It's not in there. How many volumes are there? Where can we get them?" said Harry.

"Well, naturally, the European is the most popular in this area of the world. I doubt there's a bookshop in this country with any of the others. They are just not popular with wizards. You'd probably need to try contacting foreign bookshops." said Bingley then added suspiciously, "Is that fire on the floo network?"

"No, just a normal fire." said Harry.

"erm... Well I did experiment..." began Hermione guiltily.

"What! When was this?" choked Harry.

"It was over a year ago. I forgot to mention it. I'd even half-forgotten about it myself. I was up here on my own one time and..."

"Just happened to accidentally do some very advanced magic that you'd been studying in a book for three weeks?" said Harry but he was amused rather than feeling sarcastic.

"No - it's not working anyway. I just had a theory it could be simply connected to the Hogwart's floo network without anyone..."

"Without anyone knowing? Is that it?" said Bingley. "Great idea! Hogwarts has one central floo system. Any of its fireplaces can theoretically be included. But did you realize you would still be mapped in and out? Nobody can slip in and out of Hogwarts unnoticed."

Harry looked guiltily at Ron and Hermione and they glanced back furtively but Bingley did not seem to notice.

Bingley held up her wand towards the fireplace, "You've got it completely wrong anyway, Hermione. It's not that easy. You need a ministry licence even to add to a system. I can't even legally show you how it's done. I'll speak to the headmistress. You're all honoraries here. If Professor McGonagall agrees then I'll set it up for you."

"Thanks, Professor." They sat quietly for a minute or two.

"Preed might still be alive of course. Maybe he has an agent you can owl." said Bingley.

Hermione dashed to the shelf where they had accumulated some books. She grabbed the Preed volume and flipped the pages at the back and front.

"Here it is! There is a London address after the foreword. It's a woman; Thensa Preed. She's a magi-cartographer. I'll send an owl right now."

Bingley was worried, "I'm rather sceptical about all this. If you find this mountain really exists then I'll take it up with the headmistress and consult with the ministry for them to investigate. An old memory doesn't mean much at the moment."



Chapter 11: Dark Location
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After hearing that the famous Harry Potter was seeking assistance, the magi-cartographer, Thensa Preed, not only agreed to help but enthusiastically invited him to her home, a mansion house in a London suburb. Ginny needed to do extra work to catch up with her Transfiguration studies. Ron tended to work with Hermione and Neville was reluctant to separate from Hannah so it was agreed that Luna would accompany Harry that weekend.

True to her word, Professor Bingley had extended the Hogwarts' floo system to the old classroom fire. She had somehow contrived for Hermione to be there to watch - 'for study purposes only' - she had said with a twinkle in her eyes.

On the Saturday morning, Professor Bingley was there to give Harry some last minute advice.

"Harry, try not to give away your reasons for wishing to locate this mountain. The less that know what you are doing the better for now until the ministry are advised."

"I thought you were sceptical about all this?" smiled Harry.

"I am - about the curse anyway. I'm certain that nobody could curse the entire world. Not one single wizard has ever been that..." she paused and her eyes widened as if something terrible had just occurred to her.

"Harry I have to go. Good luck and keep me informed."

She hurried out as Luna arrived wearing what was for her an almost business-like plain dark blue one-piece dress with three-quarter sleeves. Blond hair, emphasised by the dark fabric, straggled carelessly around her shoulders. Her only jewellery was a small bronze beetle brooch and twig-like earrings. A wand protruded confidently from a little wine-coloured handbag swinging from her hand. Harry smiled at her green socks and tiny laced dark red boots. The boots almost matched her bag but he could see they looked rather worn out and he wondered how her father was doing financially these days. The damage to their home must have hit them hard. However, the Quibbler had been circulating very well just after the dark war ended. The public had been eager to devour every scrap of information they could. Still... Harry could not help but ponder how Luna would manage when she left school. She was very intelligent but her eccentricities might frighten off prospective employers.

"Ready Harry?" smiled Luna, breaking him out of his reverie, and they stepped through the green flames.

Mrs. Preed led them into the central main hall of her mansion house. This still served as the main living area just as it probably had for many centuries. The wood-panelled room was spacious but filled comfortably with leather-upholstered seating and delicate cabinet furniture. Above the grey stone fireplace was a large wooden plaque with a finely carved stylised hippogriff at its centre which Luna examined closely and greatly liked. She ran her fingers over its raised wing then quickly ran after her host to an intimate grouping of soft-brown armchairs surrounding a little walnut occasional table.

Luna gazed about at the grandeur and noticed Harry seemed almost overawed by it. Luna smiled to herself as she could see that Harry had forgotten he could buy a place like this several times over. He probably never would want to. These old family homes were something you were born into and then took for granted but otherwise alienated some visitors who were not used to such majesty. Luna saw through the greatness and felt it was comfortable and homely. She liked it.

A figure walked by an open door on the opposite side from which they had just entered. Mrs. Preed excused herself for a moment, walked quickly over and spoke briefly to someone just out of sight then came back in with a young man of about twenty years of age. "Sorry, my son tends to avoid company..."

"Only when you're talking business all the time!" the man addressed the visitors, "Sorry, I heard voices and assumed you were clients of my mother. Boring!" he said.

"Harry Potter! Pleased to meet you!" he came over to the pair with a look of great surprise on his face. The image of Harry Potter had appeared so often in the Daily Prophet that nobody could fail to know him and his accomplishments. But the young man's voice carried much personal warmth and Harry felt himself respond.

"I'm afraid we are talking business in a way." Harry shook hands,"Luna here thinks we-"

"Luna? You must be that crazy person who is ready to believe in anything and everything. What an imagination!" he laughed.

"Now son!" said his mother, "That will sound impolite!"

"No, that's not me." Luna smiled.

"Pity. Luna is an unusual name so I thought you must be her." He really did sound disappointed then turning to his mother asked, "What do you mean?"

"I mean it sounded like a criticism." replied his mother.

"Oh." He looked puzzled trying to remember what he had said.

Thensa Preed sighed and turned to Luna, "I must apologize for my son. If you knew him like I do then you'd know by 'crazy' he probably means 'thinking outside the box', someone who is not tied down to conventional ideas." She looked at him to encourage his agreement.

Luna just smiled and looked thoughtful.

Mrs. Preed explained her son further, "It was a compliment."

"Yes I know." said Luna. " 'thinking inside a box' - yes, I like those words - It tells how people think and they can't get out of it."

"So please don't be off..." continued Mrs. Preed then tailed off with surprise. "Oh. You knew."

"Yes, it was a fine compliment but I don't deserve it because I've never been able to accept that one and one might sometimes not be two and I've tried really hard. I suppose everyone has. It always ended with me thinking that two means two of something so it must mean two ones. There are some magic spells that can make it seem different but they can't actually change the true sum." said Luna.

"I don't think Luna Lovegood ever had a box in the first place!" explained Harry. He was used to this. He smiled and awaited the reaction of the other two.

The young man looked astonished. "You really are her aren't you? You're Luna Lovegood?"

"Yes, that's right." replied Luna. She was used to people being confused around her because of the proliferation of Wrackspurts. Yet she had grown to accept that the problem was almost unsolvable because very few people could accept that there were any Wrackspurts. The reason for this was that people were so confused by them they could not think clearly enough to realize that they must exist. That proved it. It was obvious really.

"Merlin's hat! I'm a long time admirer. Heard quite a bit about you and I always read your pieces in Quibbler."

"You read it only for amusement." said his mother with a slight frown tempered with a smile.

"No. You read it for amusement, Mother. I read it for interesting ideas. I don't agree with many of them but I like the style and the new concepts." He smiled at his mother, "Anyway, who's being rude now?"

"Nobody is being rude I'm sure." said Luna, "I'm happy if you get a laugh out of The Quibbler. Most people read it for that."

Mrs. Preed looked at Luna, "You say the most unexpected things."

"That's wonderful!" her son laughed, "I'm Rolf by the way but my friends call me Roly."

"No they don't - it's only Jack who calls you that." said his mother quickly. She hated the familiar name and would have preferred its use not be proliferated.

"Oh, I'll call you Rolf. It's much nicer." said Luna. "Would that still be alright even if I were?"

"Even if you were what?" asked Rolf, enjoying his own perplexity at some of Luna's comments.

"Do I have to call you Roly to be a friend?" asked Luna earnestly. She hoped not because she had already decided she very much would like to be the friend of this personable young man.

"You can call me any name you like." replied Rolf impulsively then realized he meant it.

Luna thought seriously for quite a time during which Rolf watched in amused curiosity then she said, "No, I can't think of a better name than Rolf. It's a lovely comfortable name and it's very short like Luna which is useful when you think how many times you have to write your name in a small space - I mean on the paper not a very small room - and it's easy to spell. I knew a boy called Oyglmaerius and he was very unhappy and people shouted 'Oy!' which is funny once but not fifty times a day for a lifetime. Suppose he lives to be a hundred? That would be awful I think."

Rolf grinned at his mother who was looking rather bemused, "I don't think Harry Potter and Luna Lovegood talking business will be boring at all!"

"Mrs. Preed, you used a muggle expression..." began Harry, not at all troubled by trying to follow Luna's thinking. He'd learnt to simply absorb what he could and not worry about the rest.

Thensa Preed seemed a little embarrassed, "My father's influence. He always honoured his background and often took me on visits to muggle friends and relatives. Come and have a cup of tea and a bite to eat."

Mrs. Preed led the way into an elegant family dining room. Dark wainscotting panelled the lower half of each wall and victorian wallpaper patterned with floral vases and urns on a deep red ground reached up to clever mouldings edging an off-white moulded ceiling. Sideboards and cabinets, each spaced out and adorned with decorative figures, statuettes, and other bric-a-brac, stood along each wall. The same symbolic hippogriff appeared above the smaller fireplace in this room too. A delicate grandmother clock ticked the seconds away to gently fill any quiet moments in the room.

A tiny house elf wearing a white pinafore over a smart black costume was already setting out cups and saucers and plates of biscuits on a low dark walnut curved table draped with a white lace cloth. That seemed to be only the start. Soon there were sandwiches, buns, cakes, and even more biscuits appearing on the table together with a huge teapot with which the little elf staggered around filling cups. She then curtsied and vanished with an efficient click of her fingers as Mrs. Preed said, "Thank you Feya."

The group sat in an informal circle next to the table rather than around it and Luna then noticed that the little elf had not left the room but apparated to a corner a discrete distance away in case she were needed. But everything was to hand and either Mrs. Preed or Rolf offered sandwiches or else passed dishes around as they were needed. Luna felt there was something especially pleasant about the elf and she smiled at her from across the room. The elf smiled back and curtsied again, "Does the young Miss require anything? Feya is happy to be of service."

"Oh thank you." replied Luna, "May I talk to you?"

Luna suddenly remembered that perhaps many would regard it bad manners to talk to their servants so she turned quickly to the lady of the house, "May I speak to Feya please, Mrs. Preed?"

Mrs. Preed was rather startled. She found Luna unpredictable and strange but she could scarcely object, "Why... yes, of course."

Thensa Preed watched as Luna went over and began a conversation with her house-elf. Mrs. Preed became more and more distracted. She had thought the young girl was going to make some direct request for assistance, perhaps a glass of water or some special potion for her digestion. That would be strange enough. It was polite for guests to ask their host and for their host to call upon her own servants if needed. But Miss Lovegood was already sitting cross-legged on the dining-room floor having a heart-to-heart chat with the house-elf. Mrs. Preed's thoughts went round and round in circles wondering what they might be talking about and why they would be talking while visiting and supposedly sitting at tea with their host.

"What's your opinion, Mother?" it was Rolf speaking.

"Mmm... what's that dear?" replied Mrs. Preed not really listening even now but just automatically responding.

"Grandfather's study and library - all those notes and sketches - there might be something in those as well as all your works."

"Something what Dear?" Mrs. Preed dragged her attention back to her son and the conversation immediately before her.

"Harry is trying to locate a mountain..."

"A volcano actually." said Harry.

"Ah! yes I see. Yes one day I plan to work through all your grandfather's writings. If we can't find what you want in my own reference works then we should definitely look at those but they are rather disorganized. A volcano you say? Where is it and what is its name?"

"Well, that's the problem; I don't know. I know what it looks like so I'm almost sure I would recognize it if you have a photograph."

Mrs. Preed looked puzzled, "You've seen it?"

"Well no, I've er... I've seen a picture of it ... some time ago. I'd just like to know where it is."

Luna and Feya were laughing quietly together now. Feya's laughter in particular was like softly flowing tinkling bells and sweet to the ear. Mrs. Preed was astonished that she had not heard that lovely sound before. Feya had been in her service for almost a year and she seemed content. She treated her well and so did Rolf.

"Mother?"

"Sorry? What did you say?"

Rolf looked at his mother with amusement. He knew she was rather formal in outlook, especially when there were guests. He had not missed her looks towards the far corner where Luna and Feya sat in conversation. He knew that would irk his mother's sense of propriety.

"They mean no harm, Mother. Feya is a gentle creature and Luna is probably a kindred spirit. Let them enjoy each other's company. Promise me you won't rebuke Feya later." Rolf mildly chided her with a smile.

"Of course not... Oh perhaps you're right. Perhaps I would have made a remark out of curiosity if nothing else." Despite her stiff upbringing, Mrs. Preed could be honest with herself if reminded or directed. She looked at the couple in the corner yet again. There was something so innocent and captivating about them that Thensa Preed wondered if she were jealous of their almost instant childlike togetherness. Searching her own feelings and memories she recalled a childhood friend she was not permitted to play with after there were suspicions about her friend's parents' Death Eater connections. That had evoked a conflict within her. She had suffered both a sense of loss and loneliness as well as the desire to 'do what is right and proper' - whatever that might be at age eight. She smiled and sighed as she saw Luna put her hand affectionately to Feya's cheek.

If Luna had thought about such things she might have supposed she was drawn to speak to Feya simply because she seemed nice and looked very interesting. Perhaps in a way that was true. But as they talked together, Luna had a growing feeling of something more; something that deep down she knew but could not recall. She had begun talking quite spontaneously and in a completely uninhibited way.

"That's a very pretty tunic. I can see close up it is beautifully decorated." Luna had said as she sat down crossing her legs underneath her for comfort on the dark varnished floorboards. Even so, she was still looking downwards slightly at little Feya who was still standing.

"Oh thank you Miss. Feya decorated it herself. It was an old large plain dress with a lot of good material so Feya cut it down and stitched it in her spare time." Feya's voice was a melody when she was happy. She continued,

"Neither tall nor short is good or bad. Feya can't reach high shelves but she can do finer stitches than anyone with these little hands." she said proudly holding out her fingers for inspection.

"Feya has a lovely set of delicate charmed needles that were a gift on leaving home." she added, clearly pleased at the memory.

"If Miss Lovegood is here again another day, Feya would be most happy to show you her needlecase." inquired Feya hopefully.

"I think we shall be coming again. I would very, very much like to see your needlecase." replied Luna, genuinely interested, then she added, "and please, please, call me Luna. I would so much like you to."

"Yes Miss. Feya is happy to know Miss Luna."

There was a contented pause for many seconds.

"Feya has a message for Miss Luna... If Miss Luna will accept it." said Feya suddenly.

Luna felt surprised and yet some deeper part of her was not, "What is it you wish to tell me, Feya?"

"It's not for the telling, Miss." replied Feya, "Feya needs Miss Luna's permission to give."

Luna thought for a few seconds then laughed, "If it is legilimency you are going to use then I'm sure I can't stop elf-magic."

"No Miss but Feya would not give without permission of Miss Luna. Is not legilimency. Is... closestness... intimateness... Is... mindkiss... from Seraphina." Feya was clearly searching for the right words - and inventing them - to describe something she knew but had never expressed verbally before.

Luna Lovegood was suddenly very still and attentive; her head tilted slightly to one side as she looked at the little elf. There was something very beautiful in Feya's expression and Luna felt a change in her own perceptions. This unimportant little corner of Thensa Preed's dining room became very personal and friendly to her. She felt the strong wooden floorboards upon which she sat were placed there just to support her for these moments. The dark-painted nails that held those boards had been hammered into place only for her. The air that flowed in and out of her was a gift endlessly and lovingly provided. The clock tick was an exquisite sound played freely. Luna's whispered voice was uttering itself, "I give my permission."

Again that timeless moment as of Luna's contact with the fairy Seraphina in the Forbidden Forest came upon her. Again she felt that pure mother-love. Somehow, this little elf was an avenue for the immediacy of that contact. The 'motherness' of Luna's own mother was there in that moment, tangible and real. The 'friendness' of Feya was there. Luna felt her own 'selfness' there. And Seraphina was the 'thereness' itself.

And all of this was only to convey a reassurance; a new certainty that clarified for Luna what she might and might not say to people regarding Seraphina's fairykind; what she might freely put in her works, her writings. Luna felt any last doubts and confusion she had had, were now revealed as nothing. There was a new freeing. There was a release. There were no words but there was the impression of 'It's alright, Luna." and a sense that she could be guided safely by and trust her own feelings in the matter. Then the experience was fading. There was no clinging to it. There was no sorrow as the dining room corner returned to her attention; the little nails in the floorboards, the next tick of the clock.

"Miss Luna looks too radiant." Feya whispered, and Luna understood. The sacred should not be public. She massaged and pinched her own face, twisted and flexed her jaw around and tried to think of something plain and boring to bring her down to earth. She pictured the daily grind of poor Oyglmaerius.

Feya laughed softly as Luna contorted her face in different ways and Luna laughed with her. When she had composed herself a little she said simply,

"Thank you Feya. I very much wish to be... That is, may I please be your friend?"

"Feya is very joyful to be a friend of Miss Luna." replied the little elf.

"Now, Feya, I am to assist you. I don't know in what way exactly but I was given the feeling that was like taking the lid off an upside-down jar of dirigible plum jam and inside was 'Feya needs your help.' Can you tell me what it is I must do, Feya?" asked Luna.

Feya looked puzzled, then slightly concerned, "Miss Luna is to help a house-elf?"

"Miss Luna is to help a friend named Feya." replied Luna.

"Feya cannot be helped." replied the elf sadly.

"Seraphina wishes it." Luna told her firmly.

"Seraphina wishes this for little Feya?" responded the astonished elf.

Feya looked at Luna with such a mixture of emotions it was impossible for them all to be perceived then she obediently confided, "Feya wishes to be with Mikey. But Feya is bound to this house and happy to stay with Master Rolf and Mrs. Preed. Mikey will be great Hogwarts' kitchen master one day. Feya wishes for Mikey to be happy."

Luna had the impression that if the elf had not been on duty she would have burst into tears. The elf gripped the top edge of the wainscotting and held on tight while she physically squirmed to remain looking respectable for her mistress.

"Feya has done very bad things - hidden visits with no permissions. Will Miss Luna please punish Feya secretly? Feya cannot bear to shame this house."

Luna's mind was almost whirling with so many thoughts all at once that she was afraid for a moment that a Wrackspurt had slipped in while she was distracted.

"Nobody should punish you, Feya. You have done nothing wicked. It shall remain secret. I will find a way to help you, Feya. If Seraphina wishes me to help you then there must be a way."

Feya stared at Luna. What Luna had said was true. Hope and amazement lifted her expression that such a fairy as Seraphina and a witch such as Luna Lovegood who had fought and won in the Great Battle should wish to help a house-elf.

"Feya is most grateful and happy for this Great House of Scamander not to be shamed by this lowly elf."

Luna asked with great surprise and interest, "Is this the House of Scamander - of Newton Scamander, the great magizoologist? I thought this was Mrs. Preed's home."

Now it was Feya's turn to look surprised, "Mrs. Preed was married to poor Mr. Willem Scamander."

Across the room, Mrs. Preed thoughts were racing. What were they talking about with such intensity and range of emotions that she could see even from where she sat.

Her curiosity might have caused her to intrude if Luna had not at that moment given her last reassurances to Feya and returned to the party at the table.

"My dear, is everything all right?" asked Mrs. Preed.

"Oh yes, we talked about some lovely things. Feya is going to show me her needlecase." said Luna excitedly.

"Mrs. Preed, may I ask you something?" said Luna. She walked over to the fireplace.

"Yes of course, my dear." replied Mrs. Preed. It was etiquette and curiosity which prompted her but she was very nervous now of anything that this extraordinary young woman might say.

"Feya mentioned that this is the House of Scamander - is this the family crest?" Luna pointed to the carved hippogriff.

"Not really a formal crest but I believe those were carved during my husband's grandfather's time. His wife, Rolf's great-grandmother used to breed hippogriffs." She looked across at Rolf who was following the conversation with interest.

"Perhaps Luna is puzzled by your surname, mother." suggested Rolf.

Mrs. Preed nodded, "Ah yes. I was born of the Preed family and I think I mentioned my father was very proud of his muggles' ancestry. When I married Willem Scamander, my name of Preed was already well-known as a magi-cartographer, at least among travelling witches and wizards, mariners, other map-makers and so on. My father persuaded me to informally retain that name. Sometimes I used the name Preed-Scamander but mostly Preed. Officially my name is just Scamander after my husband but I only use that on legal documents and suchlike."

"What was your husband, Mrs. Preed? What happened to him?" asked Luna.

"We met when I was doing some prolonged commissions for his father so I was often working in the study and library here. My husband was a ministry historian. You would think that to be a very safe occupation and you would be right. Sadly he was attacked and killed by a graphorn when on a trip with his father - Rolf's grandfather. You have both probably heard of Newton Scamander, the magizoologist?"

Harry spoke, "Yes, we all use his textbook at school. He used to be headmaster - before I first went there. Luna here is really the expert on magical creatures aren't you Luna?"

"I learn all I can. I hope to write myself one day. This was why I was interested in the name - I have studied the textbook so much I almost know it by heart and the name Scamander is lovingly familiar to me." answered Luna.

"Well then, Rolf here has followed his grandfather's profession. You should have lots to talk about." said Mrs. Preed with a smile.

Rolf addressed Luna, "It was clear from the Quibbler that both you and your father were very interested in all magical creatures. Your article on the diet of thestrals was particularly interesting."

"I didn't know you wrote serious... I mean... You wrote about er... ordinary erm... known magical animals." Harry struggled to recover.

Luna laughed, "Harry, you meant to say you thought all the Quibbler articles were frivolous imaginary inventions."

Harry defended himself, "No not quite that but a lot are about... let's say 'unproven' creatures... I mean, I've always kept an open mind but..."

"But you thought the articles would be amateurish. You never really read those articles did you Harry?" Luna lightly scolded him with an amused tone.

"No, sorry, Luna, I read other stuff but tended to skip..." Harry mumbled a bit rather embarrassed.

Rolf laughed, "Luna Lovegood succeeds in putting down the Boy Who Lived where you-know-who failed! I must tell you Harry that those articles are very well written even if many are not academically accepted."

The conversation tended to divide in two with an overlap. Luna and Rolf steered more and more towards talking about magical creatures and career prospects for wizarding naturalists while Harry and Mrs. Preed were discussing the types of imagery that Mrs. Preed associated with her map-making. Rolf and Luna were noticeably becoming more and more absorbed in each other and as Rolf fetched book after book to show Luna various pieces of information, Mrs. Preed became once again rather distracted from her own conversation with Harry. Even Harry was becoming a little concerned. He knew how forthright Luna could be and he did not want Mrs. Preed to be offended. They needed her help.

"I need to work hard this year. Some of the subjects need a lot of extra study. I hope I get the ones I want." said Luna.

"Don't worry. You're smart. You should not have any trouble getting qualified to be a naturalist or zoologist if that's what you want to be." said Rolf, "I found the lessons really difficult - and there were a couple of young Slytherins always mocking me. I was lucky. The headmaster let me stay on for part of the next year and retake one of the exams again. I was really tired at the end but I got it - I got the qualification. Then I nearly got expelled because I did a dance on the Slytherin's table during dinner!"

Luna laughed, "Well you got there in the end which is what matters. Everybody's different. In a way your achievement is greater - and you kept your sense of humour."

Luna was paused in deep thought and had actually asked Rolf if she might 'think for a while.' as she put it. Both Harry and Mrs. Preed had completely stopped talking and were watching her intently. It would be difficult to tell which of them was more expectant of something unusual - Mrs. Preed because she was still nervous of the unexpected - or Harry because he was used to expecting the unexpected from Luna.

Luna finally broke the silence, "Rolf, I've been thinking about a solution to a problem. I think you're rather yummy like eating white candy floss and hot chocolate pudding on a snowy river bank at dawn in thick fog and the water is steaming and the silence is so quiet that all you can see and hear in the whole wide world is the snow and the water and the fog and the pudding but the candy floss is just flimsily unreal and hard to see so you can only taste it so it's like tasting something lovely without the something - like tasting loveliness." Luna was speaking earnestly as if what she was saying was obvious once you said it.

Mrs. Preed was in mild shock. She had no precedents to deal with this so remained silent. Harry just clamped his jaw closed and held on to his chair.

Rolf replied in a daze, "I'm really that yummy?"

Luna continued, "Oh yes I'm certain. But the problem is I probably won't see you much again so the solution I thought up was if we might go out on a date together so you would get a chance to know me better and decide if you want to go on more dates which I'd really like but it's up to you. If you don't like the first date then you don't do any more so you only waste the one date. Is it a good plan do you think?"

Rolf replied through his amazement, "It seems an excellent plan, Luna, but I don't think I need the date to decide..."

"Would you like time to consider? Most people don't like me at first but one or two do after a long time when they have got to know me and think a bit more. If you give me this one chance then you might change your mind." suggested Luna who was very sure she wanted to see Rolf again 'lots of times' as she would put it. She was completely unselfconscious about what she wanted. It was very simple to her.

Rolf hardly knew how to answer. This amazing girl seemed to be unaware of her wonderfully charming and attractive personality. He was only used to those of her sex who proudly flaunted what little appeal they had. She seemed to have the strange notion that she might not be liked. How could that be possible? He decided not to attempt to unravel Luna's belief that he might not like her but to simply accept her idea and let her discover for herself that he did. But his own upbringing and the freshness of Luna's approach combined to inhibit his reply to being rather formal and stiff. He had never been frightened of a girl in his life but now he was completely unable to forecast how Luna might respond and he felt afraid his response might fail:

"Luna, I am obliged to you for considering me in your proposal. Next week a cousin of mine is celebrating both a birthday and a ministry promotion with a small party; a buffet dance at the local hall. Would you like to accompany me?"

"Rolf, may I speak with you a moment?" Mrs. Preed walked out into the adjacent room. Rolf turned to Harry and Luna, made his excuses, and followed her. As he entered the room the door closed so rapidly behind him it did not seem to be his action but that of his mother. But the speed of the door on a faulty spring latch made it rebound back slightly leaving a small gap.

Harry and Luna sat together quietly aware of a sense of conflict in the air. Luna actually said to Harry that she thought perhaps something was wrong. This was affirmed when they had the embarrassment of hearing an argument through the gap in the doorway that they were not meant to hear. Harry could not bear to look at Luna as they were forced to listen.

"To the dance? Rolf, what are you thinking of?" Thensa Preed sounded astonished.

"I thought you'd be delighted Mother. You often say I should get out... socialize more." replied Rolf disappointedly.

"Yes, but... Rolf, Miss Lovegood is really sweet but very eccentric and unpredictable. What would people think? There will be many of our friends and relatives there..."

"Who cares what they think! I enjoy Luna's amiability very much..."

"But is she suitable for-"

"For what? Is she suitable to be the very best of company? - yes! Is she suitable to be refreshing, interesting, intelligent, polite, genuine, true, honest, original, compassionate, and above all, real? - again yes! You disgrace me mother! Do not..."

There was sudden silence for several seconds then the door closed slowly but firmly. A few moments later it opened again and Rolf came out closing the door behind him. He was clearly very upset. He came across to Luna.

"Miss Lovegood... Luna, I am so ashamed. I am so sorry for what you must have just heard-" he began but Luna interrupted him.

"Rolf, if you care about my feelings then will you do something for me?" asked Luna very firmly.

"Yes, yes of course." Rolf replied. He would be glad of anything to make amends.

"Will you please go back quickly and apologize to your mother and tell her how much you really care for her? She must be very hurt and she is only thinking of your happiness. She does not think badly of me at all. Also please tell her that I understand and I am not offended in the slightest. Just in case she is worried about that."

In later years it was this moment that Rolf Scamander would always remember as the one when he first realized he loved Luna Lovegood. It was this moment that was extended in time by his being stunned for many seconds at Luna's unexpected response during which he could only stare at her. It was this moment in which he memorized her face, her eyes, the purity and earnestness of her expression forever. Rolf did return to his mother somewhat humbled. He did apologize and he did tell her how much he cared. He even tried to explain to her why Luna was not offended although he struggled to understand that himself.

Luna turned to Harry. "You understand don't you Harry? It's a privilege for someone to be able to comfort their mum and tell her how much they care about her. We never can."

"Luna, if I didn't love Ginny so much I'd probably try to give you a big kiss about now." replied Harry.

"Harry, if Ginny didn't love you so much I'd probably let you." smiled Luna.

~~~~~~~~~~~~


Mrs. Preed and Rolf eventually rejoined the visitors though Mrs. Preed was too embarrassed to refer to what had happened. Luna went up to her and took both her hands in hers.

"Mrs. Preed, we're so grateful you are helping us and allowed us to visit with you." said Luna.

"Yes, Mrs. Preed," said Harry, "would you like us to perhaps return another day?"

Mrs. Preed was a sensible, practical woman. Perhaps she does say very strange things but she can be so pleasant and polite... If I could just see how she thinks... She did not hesitate:

"Not at all. I have just had an idea how we might expedite our search." she turned to Harry, "It might take days for you to look through all my works, maps, atlases, illustrations, published and not published. Harry, would you allow me to..." she led Harry and the others through to the main hall and sat Harry down with her on the large settee in front of the fireplace.

"Harry, I know my own work of course. I remember every detail, every journey. But your description could be any of hundreds, even thousands of mountains. Would you... I have a little skill in legilimency. Would you let me perhaps see the thought - I need go no further than that. If the thought is clear I might recognize the place."

"That's brilliant! Of course! Yes, my memory is very clear. What do I do?"

"Just hold that memory in thought. Try to think of the image for a few minutes. Tell me when you are ready."

Harry settled himself down comfortably and closed his eyes. It was easy to bring the image of the mountain to the front of his thoughts. It was almost more vivid than some of his own memories. "I'm ready, Mrs. Preed."

Rolf and Luna watched them for a few seconds then Rolf suggested they should perhaps not intrude and led Luna away to other seats where they continued to get acquainted.

"Luna, are you agreeable to come to the dance with me next week? Or perhaps there is somewhere else you might prefer we go?" asked Rolf. He was resolved not to let his chance slip away or be forgotten by Luna.

"That would be lovely, Rolf," replied Luna, "a dance is always nice. You can try to teach me to behave properly if you wish and I can try to teach you how not to."

Rolf laughed quietly, "That would be fun. I wish you could have met my grandfather; he was a lot of fun too. He was very serious about his work, about magical creatures - but he had a lot of humour. After my father died, grandfather was even more like a father to me. I learnt a lot from him."

They continued discussing the various trips that Rolf had been on with his grandfather. Rolf had been very young then and his mother had always been very anxious following the death of her husband on one of these trips.

"You mean... You saw the terrible accident?" asked Luna.

"Yes, sadly. I was with grandfather looking at some strange little insects with six wings when we heard the shouts of my father a little further along the trail. Grandfather told me most firmly to stay in the tree we had climbed while he went to investigate. I could partly see what happened through the leaves. I'm not sure I completely understood he was dead until after we got back and I learned my father would not be coming home at all. Even then I think it was only when I saw grandfather's thestrals for the first time that I really accepted it."

"Your grandfather kept thestrals? They are lovely, strange creatures." said Luna.

"Yes, he cared for many different creatures to study and learn."

Mrs. Preed's loud cry drew their attention back to the present.

"Oh! But that is a real memory. Do you not recall where you saw it?" she exclaimed. There was shock and fear on her face.

"It's not my own memory... It's... complicated." said Harry.

Mrs. Preed looked at Harry very strangely, "It's his memory isn't it?" Harry nodded.

Mrs. Preed turned away, deep in thought.

"What is it mother?" Rolf came over.

"Harry, take care. I was at that place. I did not stay. There was dark magic. Evil magic. I knew it. I did not investigate. I came away. I..." Mrs. Preed paused as if thinking through something to herself then continued.

"I had forgotten... No - I think now I was made to supress it. I had no thought of it until just now when I saw your... his memory of it."

She continued after a pause, "Harry, what you saw does not exist anymore."

"The mountain is gone?" exclaimed Harry.

"No. The mountain is there alright. It's the view that has gone."

"I don't understand."

"I'm not sure I do either. Harry, I have spent my life mapping, taking measurements, making assessments. Using plot and distance charms to evaluate and calculate. I have a very skilled eye. I recognize that mountain - although it is unnamed and I..." Mrs. Preeds' eyes focused into the distance.

"I saw that mountain from one side. It stands close to a range of flat-topped mountains - plateaux - with a narrow cleft gorge in between. The terrain was extremely difficult and I wanted to get far away. I never went into that gorge."

"So my view is from within the gorge?" asked Harry.

"No... further back. It's a distant view isn't it Harry? Perhaps a mile away."

"But you said the gorge was narrow..."

"Harry... Can you and Luna stay overnight? I need to do some research on this."

Harry looked at Luna who nodded, "We can stay until tomorrow evening perhaps. We have to get back to school on Monday morning."

"Very well, that should be enough time. Come with me into the library if you wish or..." she stopped.

"Harry, why do you want to know about this mountain?"

"I can't really... That is..." began Harry.

"It's alright Harry. We can trust Mrs. Preed and Rolf." said Luna.

Harry looked at Luna and nodded. He related the story of his death experience and the world curse with as much detail as he could. Both Mrs. Preed and Rolf were shocked.

Mrs. Preed led them into the large Scamander library. Long aisles of dark redwood shelving housing thousands of books, documents, and scrolls were relieved only by clearings with high browsing tables and tall chairs and stools. Here and there, flying platforms were available to reach the higher shelves. Harry looked up. Overhead, wrought iron arches held up glassed metal frames showing the dark overcast sky above. To one side, an open doorway led into an extensive study filled with desks and more book shelving.

"Rolf, show our guests this section here. Somewhere among these documents are those for my Laitong Gao expedition. Look through for my raw notebooks. There is one that is... it has a ward on it. You may as well unlock it and read it. The counter spell is in my study, Rolf. I want to find something much older." Mrs. Preed walked further along the library to a large bench littered with what appeared to be items of junk. She reached out and disappeared. Harry looked anxiously after her.

"Don't worry. I'm sure Mrs. Preed is just searching further afield." said Luna.

"Oh that's Mother alright," said Rolf, "she flits about all over all the time. Once I think she went right around the world through twelve different countries before breakfast then sat calmly studying an old stone tablet from Chile while eating her toast." He emptied a few storage boxes but could not find the expedition notebooks he wanted. He stared at the hundreds of boxes in that section alone.

Mrs. Preed reappeared even before he had finished speaking. She grabbed another portkey and was off again.

"She shares libraries with lots of other academics. There are often trusted friends popping through here and she goes through their collections too."

"She's more comfortable now, isn't she." said Luna. "Interesting activity often takes your mind off things. I usually study my Pixie Histories or go fishing for plimpies if I'm feeling sad."

Rolf looked at Luna, not wishing to think of her as ever feeling sad. She picked up one of the empty storage boxes. "Here you are Rolf, put this just over there then you can think outside of it. I'm sure it will help."

Her laughter pulled him immediately out of his mild reverie. He pushed the box over where she said and laughed with her.

"You see? It's helped already." smiled Luna. "Now start really thinking. Think backwards and it will be obvious."

Rolf thought for a while then smacked his palm on his forehead and laughed. He went into the study and came back with the counter-spell. He put a finger to his lips to signal to Harry and Luna to be very quiet then he used the spell. A faint popping sound could be heard from one of the boxes. Rolf opened it up and took out the notebook with the unlocked ward. He passed it to Harry. Rolf turned to Luna.

"You're a true Ravenclaw, Luna, you know that? I, myself, was-"

Luna interrupted, "You'd have to be Hufflepuff with all that extra work you put in to qualify."

"Right again! Is there anything you don't know?"

"Oh yes."

"What?"

"I don't know." smiled Luna.

"Got me again!" laughed Rolf.

Harry felt completely out of it and he loved it. He rejoiced to see these two sparking off each other, completely oblivious of him. He was delighted to see Rolf's complete acceptance of Luna from the first moment they met which was extremely rare. He thumbed through the notebook but could not see anything obvious. It seemed to be all about various herbs and plants that had been encountered.

"Try thinking outside this, Harry. It really works." Luna slid the empty box over to Harry.

Harry laughed and redoubled his efforts to find some clue in the pages. His internal struggles showed on his face.

"Don't think faster and harder, Harry - you'll only get there slower. Think slowly backwards." said Luna.

Harry grimaced. Easier said than done. he thought. He examined the pages carefully. They seemed to be parchment but with a slightly blue tinge. Looking closer he could see they had faint angled lines like ghostly diagonal graph paper. But all the damned notebooks are like that thought Harry. He began to wonder if the information was really somewhere else and this notebook was a decoy. After all, why the hell was this one locked so simply - and anyone might find the counter spell. Then he recalled a saying Professor Worley had said in her class about wards. A doubled ward for an easy reward. He used the counter-spell again and the notebook cleared to reveal new text and sketches. He looked up to see Luna smiling at him.

The notebook was quite large but most of the pages were about incidentals, approaches to the location, surroundings, journey requirements, known trails, general stuff. But as he turned a page he quickly found a reference to a peak far ahead, probably volcanic. He flipped forward a few pages. There it was. Harry stared. Mrs. Preed must have used a turn quill for the sketches he thought. He could partly turn the drawing just by moving his head.

Initially it looked to his untrained eye like he was just looking at a long fairly flat-topped mountain range with a slight gap then another mountain. But the mountain was clearly a dark simple cone shape and as he turned it then he saw the edge of the grey rocks strewn down the gorge side. He tried to turn it fully but the gorge was too narrow so all he saw was a close up of grey with not enough detail to see anything. That was probably something like being in the gorge. Although Mrs. Preed had never been into the gorge, Harry knew a turn quill, given enough drawing, real or expertly evaluated, could simulate that view. It was merely what a normal sketch would look like if an artist had estimated the view without actually seeing it.

Luna and Rolf had seen Harry's body language and came over to look.

"Is that it?" asked Rolf.

"Definitely." said Harry. "Where is this place?"

"Northern China. Looks rather remote from these other notes. Mmm... Some of this handwriting is my grandfather's. They all did a few expeditions together - mother recording the terrain and mapping; grandfather studying the magical wildlife. Occasionally my father went too as a general helper and as a kind of holiday and to be with my mother. I don't think he was on this one though. This was an early one. I don't think I was even born yet."

Mrs. Preed passed through quickly again far along an aisle, took one book from a shelf and portkeyed away again. Rolf didn't call to her about the mountain. He knew to let her be while she was working like this.

Harry read further. Most of the notes were related to geology, landscape, values relating to distances derived from various charmed detectors, and so on. However, he did find Mrs. Preed's notes about the area close to the mountain but the notes were vague. caution. dark effects. hexes or curses. recorded all I can but can't get further into gorge. inc. deep sad. dmntors? lifeless. serious. unprepared. too risky. poss. confus. & reluctance hexes. hawk. retreat. There was more that were just observations about marker and positional reference points.

Harry turned the page. N melancholy on my return to camp. Damn hex clinging hours. N cleansed me eventually then himself. agreed avoid gorge area.

"N - that would be my grandfather Mr. Newton Scamander. It looks like he remained in camp while my mother mapped the section near the gorge."

"She said 'lifeless'. All the creatures probably would not go near - but there was a hawk..." said Luna. It was a question.

"Explorers often use a team patronus as a guide if they get lost. Grandfather's was a tiny sparrowhawk."

"Even a badly confused person might follow a patronus." mused Luna, "You're glad of anything; go to anything where there is hope. But you're never happy enough to summon your own patronus."

Rolf stared at Luna but he did not question her.

Mrs. Preed arrived just then and came over. "It seems every relevant wizard and muggle map has been tampered with somehow. I found only one very ancient crude parchment map in a friend's collection that shows a valley called Tiantang to the east of the mountain where the mountain range is on other maps.

"The gorge is not a gorge. It's just the end of the Tiantang Valley. I doubt even you-know-who could create a mountain range and fill up a valley so I suspect it's some form of deception to hide the volcano. The only practical access to that mountain is through the Tiantang Valley. Muggles could not reach it any other way and there are no wizards in that part of the world."

"Oh - may I look at the map, please?" asked Luna.

Mrs. Preed handed over the map, "I must report this to the ministry. It is a very serious legal requirement and even if it were not I would want-"

"Mother! No! Think it through first! You would be accused of not reporting it all those years ago. Azkaban, Mother. Azkaban!"

"But I had no recollection..."

"How can you possibly prove that? You have the memory now."

"I must do what is right..." said Mrs. Preed feebly.

"Mrs. Preed, I am Harry Potter and this is Luna Lovegood. We will swear on oath what happened here tonight." Harry glanced sideways at Luna but he knew he would see no protestations.

"But that cannot prove that my mother did not know all these years." protested Rolf.

"Veritaserum! They will use Veritaserum!" cried Harry.

"Perhaps... But that has been known to be rejected, tampered with... I... Would you trust..." Rolf faltered.

"Let me speak to my teacher and ask her advice. Let's delay - a few days won't do any harm..." said Harry.

"No! Nobody knows but us. Nobody but us here. Promise me! I beg you, Promise me!" Rolf sounded desperately afraid.

There was a soft purple flash that faded very slowly. Luna was holding the notebook. In her other hand was her wand.

Mrs. Preed started to hurry off, "I'm so pleased we finished early - but you are still welcome to stay the night. Luna, tomorrow I'll show you the grounds. We still keep many fascinating creatures here. I'll ask Feya to make us all a nice cup of hot chocolate." She went out through the library door and they could hear her calling for the little elf.

Luna duplicated the notes with her wand then slipped the copied pages, together with the original map, into her little red bag.

"The location details remain. The drawing remains. The notes concerning the gorge do not exist. It is done." said Luna very firmly. "Harry and I have simply come here to locate a mountain. We have located it."

Harry and Rolf stared; shaken by what they had just seen. Harry was speechless. Rolf struggled to speak, "Luna, what have you done? This is very serious. You could go to Azkaban for this... Destroying evidence..."

"Not at all. It does not become evidence unless there is a case against your mother and there can be no such case. There is no law against erasing field notes. There is only a law about not reporting dark forces. There is nothing to support that such a crime ever took place except testimony and which of us three will accuse your mother? Not I."

"Excuse me! What's going on?" exclaimed Harry, finally recovering his voice.

Rolf's eyes lit up and he explained, "Pensieve parchment. Many field workers and researchers use it. My mother could not possibly remember all the hundreds of thousands of details she has recorded through her life. Those notes are not just a record of her observations; they are her observations - her very memories. She now has no other recollection of the dark forces she discovered so do not mention them to her again."

"Amazing! Wish I'd had that in Binns' class!" laughed Harry, relieved at the outcome. "I'm surprised Rita Skeeter doesn't know about this."

"It only records real facts Harry. It's of no use to Rita." said Luna. Then she smiled, "Besides, it costs two Galleons a notebook."



Chapter 12: Dancing with the Devil
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Professor Worley was shocked when Harry and Luna informed her that they had located the mountain. They had related the details of their visit to Mrs. Preed but they made no mention of the dark forces that had been detected there. After her initial surprise, Worley was quick to show that she was impressed, "I greatly underestimated you two. I confess I had doubts about the mountain but for you to actually find where it is - that is a great accomplishment."

She paced up and down her office, thinking deeply. Harry and Luna waited silently. Finally, Worley spoke.

"This really needs a dedicated team of aurors and an experienced field leader. But there is something you should know. I did not... ought not to have told you... Still ought not to..." She paused, then looked at them and continued, "There are some who are not to be trusted and one of them is at..."

Worley stopped yet again and paced up and down a couple more times.

"This is confidential. Keep this to yourself. There is someone at this school who was... still is, working with Draco Malfoy. They are involved together. I have some information... But I can hardly believe where it leads me. I dare not tell you until I am sure."

"Malfoy! We must inform the headmistress and Kingsley..." began Harry.

"No. I am not certain but I think there may be someone - at least one - at the ministry - or with the aurors - who is also connected. Of course, we know we can trust Professor McGonagall but I feel that she will go by the rules and immediately inform Minister Shacklebolt. What I am saying is that any official report may tip them off."

"Then what can we do?" asked Harry.

"We? You have done enough. More than enough. I am almost at a loss what to do myself. I need a full information-gathering team but who can I trust? All I can think of is for me to go in alone initially to find some hard facts about what is really going on then the Minister will act promptly I'm sure. This journey will be over unusual and very difficult terrain. If only I had an experienced expedition manager and a couple of trusted aurors to help me..."

"Rolf would be glad to help I'm sure," exclaimed Luna. "He has been on many expeditions. He already knows everything about this anyway."

Worley's eyes lit up. "Does he seem tough? Reliable? Can he get me in there?"

"Yes, I'm sure. He regularly goes on field trips, sometimes with assistants. He seems very dependable and I trust him." said Luna.

"Very well then. Can we contact him? I mean without it seeming odd?" asked Worley.

"I'm seeing him next weekend. I can ask him then." Luna smiled as she thought of the dance date that had been arranged.

"Professor Worley, I'd like to come too." said Harry.

"Absolutely not. You are a Hogwarts' student and I am your teacher. I am respnsible for you."

"I'm not a child, Professor. I'm eighteen years old. If I qualify, then in a few more months I might well be accepted as a trainee auror. I will be going out on trips..."

"Not as difficult and rugged as this one may be." snapped Worley, but she hesitated and began pacing up and down.

"If you were to promise - no heroics - this would just be surveillance, a fact-finding expedition - then we might be able to pass it off as a school field trip to practice the defence arts I'm teaching in class - practical experience, that sort of thing. We might manage say four days..." Worley still seemed unsure for a while, then she spoke again.

"This is what I've decided. Luna, if you can get Rolf to agree to at least consider guiding and managing the field expedition then we'll have a meeting one evening next week in the defence classroom. There we will make our plans and I can give you some basic advice to prepare you, Harry. Only at that meeting will I make a final decision as to whether you can go. And since your friends know about this, I suggest they be present too - they might have some useful suggestions. It will be good for someone to know what we're doing in case we..."

"In case we don't come back." said Harry grimly.

~~~~~~~~~~~~


Luna looked at all the house-elves busy about their work and wished she had come at a different time. Every elf was either scurrying, stirring, carrying, curling, rolling, or twisting something or other. Pastries and ices, flakes and froths, mashes and soups, all seemed to be in motion and synchronized with one elf or another. However, Luna managed to spot one, rather corpulent elf, leaning against a table while examining a list on a wall. He did not seem to be over-occupied so Luna went over to him.

"May I speak to the kitchen master, please?"

"Can Sloffle help the young Miss? Always pleased to help." asked the fat elf in a rather fawning manner.

"Oh - you are the kitchen master?"

The house-elf pulled himself proudly upright away from the table and proclaimed, "Yes Miss. Sloffle is the Great Hogwarts Castle Kitchen Master! One day Sloffle shall be Great Hogwarts Castle Housekeeper!"

"Where is the housekeeper?"

"Why Grimp is in his room of course, awaiting Sloffle's report."

"And what does he do?"

"The housekeeper? Why - he waits for reports of course."

"Oh - then is there someone called 'Mikey?' " asked Luna.

"Hmph! Mikey is only Sloffle's assistant." replied the fat elf, indignantly.

"I see. What does he do?"

"Do? Why he only oversees meal preparations, housecleaning, marketing, gardening, book-keeping, and other menial managing tasks we lowly elves struggle to perform each day in our service to this great Hogwarts Castle."

"And what does the kitchen master do?" asked Luna in a puzzled voice.

"Why, Sloffle checks all lists, checks house-elves, oversees Mikey and reports to Grimp." he replied proudly.

"It is sad you have to do so much. Do you never have time of your own to relax?"

"It is true we house-elves have much to do. But Sloffle is Kitchen Master! Sloffle often visits Hogsmeade friends," then he added hastily, "when he can."

"But how then will Hogwarts manage when you are away? Does the housekeeper then do the kitchen master's work?"

"Hmph! Not at all. Assistant Mikey can be trusted to continue working until Sloffle returns. That is the function of helpers. The kitchen master checks the lists and reports. The housekeeper handles reports. One day, Sloffle will be housekeeper." The fat elf seemed to relax back against his table in a reverie.

"That list looks very important," said Luna, "I would rather not trouble you. May I speak with Mikey - if he is not too busy that is."

"Yes, yes, of course, Miss. I am very busy with this particular list." The elf snapped his fingers and another elf detached himself from instructing a young elf who was preparing seven types of chocolate sauce, and began to walk over. Luna walked towards him to meet him half way then guided him to a less busy corner of the kitchen.

"Can Mikey help the young Miss?" asked the elf.

"Hello. You are Mikey?" asked Luna.

"Yes, that's right, Miss."

"I have a message for you." Luna handed over Feya's message.

"A message for Mikey?" replied the astonished house-elf. He wiped some chocolate off his hand onto his apron which promptly cleaned itself then he took the scroll. He looked at it for some time, poked it, scratched at it, and sniffed at it as though he had never received such a thing before.

"May Mikey read it now, Miss?" asked Mikey.

"You don't need my permission, Mikey, I'm sure." replied Luna, "It's your message. It's from Feya."

The house-elf looked even more startled at the sound of Feya's name. "Is Feya in trouble, Miss? You have seen Feya?"

"Yes - she's fine. I don't know what's in the message though."

The house-elf tentatively unrolled the scroll and read the message. He looked up at Luna. "Miss Lovegood is Feya's friend?"

"Yes, that's right. Please call me Luna."

Mikey bowed very low. "Mikey is your servant, Miss Luna. For being a friend to Feya. How might Mikey help Miss Luna?"

"Thank you Mikey but I am here to help you. I do not yet know how. I understand that you and Feya are fond of each other?"

Mikey did not understand the concept of a witch trying to help a house-elf. He replied rather sadly, "Mikey cannot be helped. Mikey and Feya wish to be together. Mikey wishes one day to be kitchen master. Feya wishes Mikey not to leave Hogwarts Castle for Mikey's sake and happiness."

Luna replied, "Mikey, it is very difficult. I do not know how to help you and Feya. But take heart and do not be discouraged. I am confident it will be possible. Can you be patient?"

"Mikey thanks the noble Miss Luna. Mikey's heart is lifted that such a great witch as Miss Luna considers the happiness of my little Feya. Mikey begs an opportunity to begin to repay Miss Luna..." The house-elf was wringing his hands and squirming with elfish emotions she could only imagine.

"You are very kind." Luna thought for a few moments of all the possibilities. "Could I trouble you for a double chocolate choker pudding with custard and syrup, please?"

~~~~~~~~~~~~


It was not often that Luna Lovegood despaired. She did not mind for herself that nargles had taken her only dance shoes. She could handle that; even smile about it. The fact that they were her mother's shoes was much more saddening but she could even suffer that stoically being sure that they would be found eventually. However, they would not be found in time for the dance tonight and she desperately did not want to embarrass Rolf. Her mother's dance gown was only a little shabby and out-of-date - it would suffice if the lights were not too bright. None of her other shoes would work at all - almost worse than no shoes at all. She looked at her bare feet and wondered what she was going to do.

Her only real girl friend was Ginny but ginny wore a slightly different size and anyway, Luna could not recall her wearing any shoes suitable for her needs. Hermione she was unsure of - but Luna knew that for some reason she would not believe that mischievous creatures had taken her shoes.

Luna tried a few spells without success. Transfiguration was a difficult art and every item was different. The subtle changing of her oldest boots into smart dance shoes was beyond her and she dare not risk her better shoes. Then she recalled a muggle story that Harry had told her once called Cinderella. Luna decided to go to see her fairy godmother.

~~~~~~~~~~~~


When Luna heard the strict "Come in!" she knew it was a command not an invitation. She gathered her resolve, entered, and placed her old boots on the headmistress's desk. "Headmistress, may I ask you something?"

Professor McGonagall looked up from the paper she was correcting to the old boots and then to Luna and asked drily, "Is it something to do with boots?"

"No Professor. Would you be angry if one of the kitchen elves left and moved to London? He has a friend there and they miss one another. They are both my friends and we do not know how to reconcile the situation."

"Well, all our house-elves are now free elves and I will not stand in the way of their happiness." McGonagall smiled. She could sense there was some depth of feeling involved even if it was not voiced by Luna.

"Thank you headmistress. You are very kind."

"Is that all?" McGonagall asked.

"Yes thank you." Luna picked up her boots and began to walk out.

"Miss Lovegood?"

"Yes Professor?"

"May I ask why you are walking around with a pair of old boots?"

"Oh... these? Someone needed them transfiguring to be smart dance shoes and I said it was impossible."

"It most certainly is not impossible, young lady." said McGonagall.

"Oh no, I meant to make them just right, of course."

"They can be made into any kind of shoe, any colour, material, size, or shape. It's not easy but it most certainly is possible."

"Even any material? Surely they could not be made into say, glass dance slippers?"

"Yes of course they can. They can be anything, any colour."

"What! Even gold? I thought magic could not create gold?"

"They would not be real gold - they would not be normal glass either - they would be gold-tinted charmed glass. Let me show you."

Luna handed over her old boots and McGonagall swiftly moved her wand over them while chanting softly. The delicate glass dance slippers that were the result of this action glinted with magical golden lights within.

"Why they're beautiful! The glass is soft to the touch and it's flexible!" exclaimed Luna. "They are far nicer than I... than anyone would have thought possible. Thank you headmistress."

"That's alright."

As Luna was closing the door behind her, the headmistress called out, "I hope you enjoy the dance this evening, Miss Lovegood."

~~~~~~~~~~~~


The dance floor was surrounded on three sides by tables draped in cream napery at which sat guests in conversation and amongst which were standing several groups full of song, laughter, and merriment. All was suffused in soft warm-coloured light and gentle shadows. The dancers themselves moved through these enchanted pools of illumination so that at any moment ones partner was bathed in an intimate glow or else half-hidden in mystery. The ever-changing effect was intoxicating and both Rolf and Luna were beguiled by it as well as by each other.

Luna laughed as she and Rolf wrong-footed one another yet again. "We both need more practice. I don't often get the chance."

"Oh you will I'm sure. There are not many opportunities while you are at school but in the coming years you will be very much appreciated as a dance partner."

"That would make me happy." Luna smiled. She thought Rolf was talking about himself.

Rolf had been trying to pay Luna a compliment but he realized it was true. He began to imagine scores of society gentlemen seeking her out while he was merely poking about with a stick in unicorn droppings in a forest somewhere. The frills on her golden silk gown were rather unfashionable but the worn threads were overshadowed by the beautiful ringlets in her hair. Rolf was certain that Luna would attract much attention when she came out.

"Perhaps I can change; perhaps I might be different one day." he said.

"I hope not." said Luna. "Why would you wish to change?"

"Sorry, I was thinking out loud. I suppose I meant because I do not care to go to dances very often." replied Rolf as he tried to see what the other dancers were doing. He was embarrassed by his performance. He could see his cousin Tristan was smirking and Rolf suspected it was aimed at him.

"Oh! Don't you like to dance? We could sit down if you prefer." said Luna.

"Not at all. That is, if you do not mind I would prefer to continue dancing." said Rolf rather hurriedly. Luna's nearness was making his heart race and he did not want the dance to end.

"I do not mind at all. If it is so pleasant to do it badly, think how nice it would be if we could learn to do it well." said Luna.

"That is a wonderful prospect." said Rolf. He was annoyed with himself. He had had every opportunity to learn to dance but had never made the effort. Now he was concerned that Luna might think him rather foolish. He wondered if she were pretending to miss some of her steps on purpose to put him at his ease. He could not know that she was thinking the same about him.

Despite his self-consciousness he was disappointed when the music ended and they returned to their table. His mother was standing in conversation with a cartographer friend so he was hopeful they would have the table to themselves for some time. After they had been conversing amiably for a while, Luna raised the subject of the expedition.

"Rolf, may I ask you something in absolute confidence?"

"Yes, of course. Is this about what my mother found at Laitong Gao?"

"Yes. A new expedition is being planned but it needs an experienced field leader. Would you be willing to do this? Would you consider it?"

"Will you be going on this trip?" asked Rolf.

Luna hesitated. She could not pretend to herself that she had not thought about it. If Rolf were to lead it then she would have more time with him. She knew that people mostly needed time to get to like her and she still did not know if Rolf would ever go on a date with her again. "Yes, I am thinking about it if I can. No decision has yet been made as to who will go."

Rolf was in a dilemma. He desperately wanted every opportunity to be with Luna. If she were to go then not only would he have more time with her but he would be able to offer her some protection; he knew he would be worried if she were there without him. On the other hand he did not want to encourage her to go on this trip. He would rather she did not.

"If you are going then I will go." he replied finally.

Their conversation soon turned to more pleasant topics but Rolf's hopes of keeping Luna to himself were eventually crushed when he saw Tristan and a young lady he did not recognize approaching them.

"Ho! Rolf." said Tristan, "This is Elizabeth Grancourt - you remember the Grancourts from two years ago? Elizabeth has now come out. Elizabeth, this is Rolf Scamander - he er... looks at animals."

Rolf had quickly stood up, "Very pleased to meet you. Yes I do remember your family. May I introduce Miss Luna Lovegood? Luna, this is Tristan Gammell."

Various pleasantries were exchanged and to Rolf's dismay, Tristan and Elizabeth sat down at their table. Tristan seemed somewhat taken with Luna. As the music started again, Tristan said, "Well Rolf, you seem to be stepping on a few toes this evening as usual. Perhaps I can help. Miss Luna, would you grace me with this next dance?"

"I am sorry, Tristan, but I came here to dance with Rolf." Luna said honestly.

Tristan stared. His was a well-respected family. He was not used to being refused. "Surely you cannot mean to reject every offer?"

"I confess I never expected to receive any offers. In any case I never considered it. I only came here to enjoy Rolf's company and the dance is very much secondary."

"But you do not yet know me. You might enjoy my company very much."

Luna was visibly thinking for a time while Tristan stared wide-eyed and perplexed waiting for an answer. There was only one polite answer so what was this strange girl hesitating for? Finally Luna replied, "No I do not think I will. I hope you are not offended."

Tristan stalked off without a word abandoning Elizabeth at Rolf's table.

"I am sorry, Elizabeth." said Luna.

"Not at all. You may have rescued me from that pest. I see you have a mind of your own. I wish I could be so strong."

"Miss Elizabeth, feel free to stay at our table - or I can escort you back to your family's table if you wish." said Rolf. He heard himself saying the words to Elizabeth out of natural courtesy but he was looking at Luna and his mind was in a daze thinking of what she had said.

"Thank you. I will stay for a time. I have been compelled to dance most of the evening so far and a little good conversation would be nice."

Mrs. Preed sat down at the table again. "Elizabeth! It is over a year since I visited. How are the extensions to Grancourt Manor working out? I believe you have had stables and paddocks added this year?

"And a new gatehouse built. They were finished in the Spring but father did not anticipate it would take this long to find extra staff. I don't know how you manage Scamander House without more in service, Mrs. Preed." said Elizabeth.

"Well, it is difficult. We did have a housekeeper at one time but she was not reliable - We still have three house-elves but organizing everything is time-consuming."

"The Dunns sold Dunn House last year and moved to a smaller property but I suppose that would be unthinkable for such a long-established home as that of Scamander."

"Yes, that is likely - though that is not up to me." replied Mrs. Preed.

"How so?" replied Elizabeth, very surprised, "Are you not Mistress of the House?"

"Oh - Rolf is master of the House of Scamander now." said Mrs. Preed. "Scamander House is very old. It retains the ancient traditions - the eldest child, not the spouse, inherits. His father did discuss it with me before he died. I am self-sufficient. I have my career, my business. What would I want with the responsibility of such a legacy?"

Rolf spoke, "Yes, I should devote more time to sorting out the affairs. It is a burden when I'd rather be out in the forests."

"Rolf, would an efficient housekeeper solve the problem?" asked Luna.

"It's not that easy, Luna, house-elves are bound to their homes - usually for life. One cannot just go shopping for a house-elf." replied Rolf.

"Supposing I knew of a free house-elf, one already skilled enough to be kitchen-master. One who is experienced in organizing and managing a very large kitchen, trusted with market purchases, a kitchen-garden, as well as overseeing cleaner and general worker-elves..."

"A free house-elf you say? You know of such a one?" asked Rolf.

"I would need to enquire if he is agreeable, of course"

"I would not wish to disturb the running of another's home."

"The house has a very great number of house-elves and they have already agreed he is free to leave without conflict. This particular house-elf is trapped in his current situation. He cannot advance because the house already has a kitchen master and you know how long house-elves live." smiled Luna.

"And can you say which house this is?" asked Rolf.

"It is Hogwarts Castle."

"Luna, it would be very thoughtful of you if you could arrange this." said Rolf.

A young man was asking Elizabeth to dance and Rolf and Luna joined them on the floor. They continued to put their feet in all the wrong places but they no longer cared; Rolf's and Luna's hearts were perfectly in step. Luna's words kept repeating in Rolf's thoughts, I only came here to enjoy Rolf's company. I only came here to enjoy Rolf's company.

~~~~~~~~~~~~


It was a strange meeting in the Defence Against the Dark Arts Classroom with all its old memories. The teacher and students had not gathered there to study books and theory nor even to practice - they were there to evaluate a plan for a real surveillance mission. Rolf Scamander was there too. The headmistress had given permission for a four-day field trip for exceptional students on condition one other experienced adult was present. Luna had laid out on a table the copies of Mrs Preed's note pages and the old map of the area that showed the Tiantang Valley. The valley ran roughly east to west with the west end being open. Just outside of the open end was the volcano. The east end was more rugged but there was a pass through the mountains into the valley.

"It's a Vee-shape." said Ron, who was standing with Hermione at one end of the table, "and it's pointing at the earth."

"What? What do you mean?" asked Harry. "I don't see that."

"The drawing of the volcano is a Vee for you-know-you." repeated Ron.

Hermione explained, "You need to stand further back and look at it upside down. See?" Hermione turned the page around.

"I didn't realize you could see a more distant view with pensieve parchment just by standing back." said Harry. He looked at the extraordinary shape: a black triangle with grey spilling down the middle forming an impression of a very rough Vee-shape.

"How would you get there?" Neville asked.

Rolf answered, "I have my mother's portkey which will take us only to within a half day's hike to the west of the mountain. From there we can travel around the volcano to give it a preliminary investigation. We should take every kind of precaution with every kind of shield and counter-curse we can."

"I agree that would make sense for a mapping or wildlife expedition - but I disagree if we are hunting dark forces." said Worley. "Rolf, your mother said there is some kind of magical deception set up to obscure the Tiantang Valley. Harry, you said Voldemort's memory showed a view that was probably within the valley. Why would Voldemort hide that approach? If you look at this map there is an indication of an old footpath through this pass in the east. I propose we use the portkey then traverse around the outside of the mountains and try find a way through the deception from the east."

"That's a much longer journey through rough terrain." said Rolf. "Four days is nowhere near long enough."

"We can apparate." said Worley.

"You cannot apparate to somewhere you don't even know." said Hermione.

"I can apparate in relays to points I can see ahead even if I cannot apparate directly. What about you Rolf?"

"Only as a last resort. I'm not comfortable apparating. I'd prefer to use a broomstick."

"Me too. I can apparate but I'm happiest on a broom." said Harry.

"I've not decided if you're going yet, Harry." said Worley.

"Then decide now." said Harry, "No use planning if you don't know who's going."

"If Harry goes then I go too." said Ron.

"Ron!" said Hermione.

"I want to go too." said Luna.

"I'll definitely go if you're going Luna." said Rolf.

"I'll go." said Neville.

Hermione was shaking her head but she said in a resigned voice, "Me too."

"Seems we're all going then." said Ginny, moving closer to Harry.

Worley sighed and shook her head thoughtfully.

Harry said, "You already know we're the best in dark arts defence and we're all of age and we've all fought Death Eaters. There's nobody I'd rather have with me than my friends."

Worley considered for a while then reluctantly agreed. "I want it clearly understood that I take any obvious risks and you all... no heroics - this is just surveillance - understand? And tell absolutely nobody of our plans - is that understood too? It's a school field trip only - an extended weekend."

There was a general murmuring of assent. The rest of the meeting discussed details. Rolf would be bringing his normal expedition bags and Hermione would also bring her beaded handbag and Ron's family tent. They were all to meet up with Rolf in a field outside Hogsmeade where he would have set up the portkey for the following friday morning.

Over the next few days there was very little time for discussion. McGonagall had insisted they all do extra homework to be ahead with their studies to compensate for lost lessons. Hannah was unhappy and even a little annoyed with Neville that they would be separated for so long. She could not understand why she was not invited. She had done her stint in Dumbledore's Army and fought in the Great Battle. Some defence practice in the field sounded like fun. When Neville pointed out the discomforts of sleeping on the cold hard ground in a leaky tent it lost its appeal. Ginny had privately tried to persuade Harry to take the elder wand but he was adamant it should be taken back to Gringotts at the next opportunity.

On the thursday before, at the evening meal in the Great Hall, Luna sat apart as usual enjoying a sweet rice milk pudding. The dessert was fine but something else was not. To Luna, it was as if she had a sum but not the numbers that added up to it. How had Draco managed to curse her without being detected? For some strange reason she started thinking about his friend Pansy Parkinson. Luna looked across at the Slytherin table. There she was and looking rather dejected and glaring back at Luna. She was sitting within the group of Slytherins but somehow not part of them. Pansy had only returned for this extra year to be with Draco and now he was gone she lacked purpose. Luna began to wonder if she had ever given Draco's defence books to him. If not, it was fun to imagine the books getting annoyed and reminding her with a nudge.

Luna's reverie was interrupted by the arrival of an owl. She recognized it as Rolf's and excitedly took the message it had brought her. But the message was not from Rolf.


To Miss Luna,

Something wonderful has happened, Miss Luna. Feya feels sure that Miss Luna knows. Mikey is not just to be kitchen master - Mikey is to be Housekeeper of House of Scamander! Feya needs to chide Mikey when she dare - to keep Mikey uninflated and humble. He thanks Feya to remind him each day who is responsible for our good fortune and happiness.

Feya and Mikey look forward to Miss Luna's visits but Miss Luna is always present in little Feya's heart.

With much love,

Your dear friend,

Feya









Chapter 13: Passage of Hate
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The figures huddled together in the middle of Halward's Field before dawn on Friday would have looked a very strange gathering indeed to a muggle if there had been one in the area. Straining his eyes to see through the drifting mist he would have observed an almost empty meadow left fallow for the year. The coarse grass might have suggested that the static forms were perhaps horses or cattle keeping together for warmth. But the faint sound of voices hanging in the silence and a closer look would have given clues that they were human - thickly-cloaked and hooded against the cold air and all standing facing inwards to a central point - an old tree stump.

Rolf and Luna in particular made strange ghostly silhouettes. They both each had a long vertical fabric bag lumped over their backs and held by thick strapping. These contained tent poles, broomsticks, and all the other camping equipment and tools that Rolf had provided. If he had known their quest, the muggle might have supposed these to be both insufficient and very heavy but, although clumsy to handle, they were actually featherlight and magically contained every necessary item.

Hermione smiled at the faded cloth bags. They had been happily used by Rolf's family for over a century but Luna, though willing, was shorter than a Scamander and her bag almost dragged on the floor. Rolf had been impressed when Hermione showed him her small beaded bag and some of its immense contents. Everyone else had small carry bags but they were hidden beneath their voluminous clothing. All that recognizably showed from the abstract shapes were cold pale hands reaching out to clutch the worn piece of rope that lay wet with dew on the stump.

If the view would have seemed merely odd to a muggle then that same outsider would surely have rubbed his eyes in disbelief a moment later - because the group simply were no longer there. For a few brief seconds there were strange gaps hanging in the haze, then these closed up, the field was normal again, and the first faint sunlight began to shred the mist floating through where the rope had once lain.

The portkey transfer was straightforward although Hermione did slip down to one knee into thick brown mud and Luna also stumbled clumsily - but Harry laughingly swapped bags with her and Ron helped Hermione and soon they were all gazing around with interest at their new environment.

Though still autumnly cool, the position of the sun showed it to be afternoon and they were standing near the edge of a small boggy stream. It flowed over a dark stony soil that supported tall coarse grasses, stout bamboo, and scattered trees. Far to the south, the brook disappeared into a dense conifer forest. The only sign of life was a rabbit scampering away and the beat of wings as a small grey heron took flight at the sudden intrusion of Worley's team.

To the immediate east there was a multitude of large rounded boulders suggesting the watercourse had been a larger river long ago. Beyond that the ground rose steadily and became much more stony with thinner foliage and low mosses. Yet further east still were the low mountains extending away into the distant haze. Standing before those peaks and crags was the group's first real view of the volcano. Harry thought it smaller than he had expected but it was still a half-day's hike away and the countryside was vast.

Rolf hefted a long smooth stone on to the nearest boulder. He was experienced and authorised to make portkeys so long as he declared them within a certain time to the country's ministry of magic. They were not too strict on applying this rule however because many explorers and researchers were often away on trips for weeks or even months and they were all registered and trusted. Rolf drew everyone's attention to the stone.

"This is the portkey for the return journey. Notice the sharp angle in the stream opposite and the tall larch ten paces to the north with the bent top. It's the only big tree without leaves around here. Now take a rough bearing on the volcano and fix these things in your thought. As we progress for the first hour or so, I'll remind you to look back and do it again. In an emergency, everyone should be able to find their way here alone without magic. You can't miss the stream then you need only walk along it to here. In addition, I have charmed the boulder so you can track it magically anyway so long as you have your wand - or your patronus can find it if you can cast one."

Worley was surveying the terrain through omnioculars and making notes. Rolf borrowed the glasses to examine the ground in the direction they would be travelling. It was as rugged as he had expected. He turned to Worley.

"It will be difficult - but acceptable in good light." he said.

"Yes, if we keep to the south of the mountain range but I prefer we move in the gloom before dawn and during dusk to be sure we are not seen." She looked at her notes, "There seems to be occasional rock cover so we can hike and use broomsticks or apparate between them before testing for magical effects and proceeding to the next. I can see a very tall dark rock with three others at its side. We'll make a temporary camp now then as soon as the sun goes down we'll head for that rock and we ought to be able to make a couple more hops like that before it gets too dark."

Worley created a smokeless fire behind a boulder and Rolf unfolded some canvas seats. The stream was silty but they had brought water flagons which they twinned magically and soon were enjoying a refreshing cup of tea with bread chunks toasted over the fire and well-buttered. It felt like breakfast but Rolf knew they would soon adjust to the time difference.

The first leg of the journey was completed without mishap that evening. Worley disapparated first and signalled back with a focused green light spell indicating it was safe to proceed. Hermione disapparated with Ron immediately. Harry and Ginny happily departed together on their broomsticks. Rolf changed his mind when he saw Neville was uncomfortable about flying so with Luna the three disapparated together. Although all of the group could use either method, most wizards and witches have a preference for one or the other.

They were soon all gathered together behind the tall dark rock. It was even more gloomy here but there was still the light of dusk and Worley had already scanned both ahead and behind with her omnioculars and found a new target location. Within ten minutes they were off again.

As darkness was finally falling, they made camp for the night against a wall of rock that gave them plenty of cover for a fully lit campfire over which a stew cookpot was soon simmering and the welcome smell of food made them realize how hungry they were. Once again, Worley was vigilantly checking all around with her omnioculars and making notes.

"Why are you looking back, Professor? Do you think Death Eaters would be out here?" asked Harry. Ron and Ginny got to their feet and began to anxiously look back over the way they had come. Neville was warming himself near the fire. Rolf and Luna were close together talking quietly together in the flickering light.

"I'm always cautious, and there could be someone who might not swallow that story about us going on a school field trip." replied Worley. "We'll set up defensive spells overnight." An almost full moon was now visible throwing a pale light onto the rocky surfaces around them and they would be quite visible to anyone on their side of the rock wall.

Rolf and Luna spent time looking at the stars and each other. Luna never tired of hearing Rolf's stories about his various expeditions and the creatures he had seen. They were the only two blessed with being distracted from their current situation. All the others suffered some degree of apprehension, not knowing what was out there or what the next day would bring.

Early the next morning it was cold. The sun was not yet up but the sky was beginning to lighten in the direction they wished to travel and they were all eager to be off. After Worley had disapparated to a few miles ahead where there was a large stone overhang, Harry held back the others to ask, "Who do you think Professor Worley is worried about? She said something before about it might be someone at Hogwarts but she's not saying who for some reason."

"Could be any of the Slytherins. I don't trust any of 'em. They're all the enemy as far as I'm concerned." said Ron.

"Perhaps it is not an enemy that we should be concerned about." said Luna.

"Luna! You think it might be a friend? Someone in Gryffindor or Ravenclaw?" exclaimed Ginny. Neville and Hermione looked aghast and shook their heads.

"It's someone who's in with Malfoy so it's got to be a Slytherin." insisted Ron.

There was animated discussion for almost a minute until Harry called a halt when he saw Worley's green signal light. Ron had the last word, "Slytherin!" he affirmed as he and Hermione disapparated.

By evening they had made good progress and were almost at the end of the low mountain range they felt sure magically obscured the Tiantang Valley.

Rolf held up a strange brass disk divided by fine lines and circled it with his wand while he softly chanted. "Professor, we should be level with the east pass. Perhaps Harry could fly up and take a look to see if there's a way in? It's only a few hundred feet higher from here."

Worley rested her glasses on her notebook. "Perhaps. But no more than that, Harry. Just scout around and report back. The light is starting to fail anyway."

"I'll go too." said Ginny and Worley nodded her assent.

As Harry and Ginny carefully flew up the steep rock face they searched for any indication of an opening but they were disappointed. Once over the top there was just a long series of rocky slopes and sharp crags fading into the distance. They flew above this, stopping now and again to check the rock but it was solid underfoot.

"I spoke to Luna earlier about what she said." said Ginny as they stood about during one of these short expeditions on foot.

"You mean about Draco's accomplice?" asked Harry.

"Yes. She thinks the reason Worley won't say who it is yet is because we'll be upset if it's a friend. Might not even believe it." said Ginny.

"I've been thinking too." said Harry.

"And?"

"What if it's not a student?"

"A teacher? Not a Hogwarts' teacher? I might have believed it of Snape or Umbridge or the Carrows but none of the others surely! Can you imagine Professor Flitwick being a Death Eater?" Ginny laughed but it was a hollow laugh.

When they descended again and after they had reported no sightings of interest, Harry asked point blank, "Professor, I think you should tell us who you suspect at Hogwarts. We have a right to know." Everyone else drew close to listen.

"An old friend of mine. It's hard for me to accept myself, Harry. I'd rather not say yet." Worley shook her head and looked unhappy. She was hard to approach on that subject all evening and Harry gave up.

The next morning well before dawn, the light, though gloomy was slightly better and it was agreed that Worley, Hermione, and Ron would apparate up the rock face and use their wands to test for dark influences and possibly detect the charm or hex that was obscuring the valley. After they had gone, Neville went immediately over to Worley's tent and went inside. He emerged moments later. He had Worley's carry bag.

"Neville!" exclaimed Harry. "What are you..."

"I know what you're all thinking. It's not Hannah. I know it's not." said Neville.

"We never said anything about Hannah. I'm sure it's not Hannah!" retorted Harry. Ginny joined him in this protestation.

Neville looked at Luna but she shook her head. "I'm certain it is not Hannah too."

"I'll prove it to you right now. We have the right - you said it yourself Harry." Neville put the bag down on a stool and pulled it open. The notebook was on top and he grabbed it and opened it at the end then worked back until he found an entry from before they had left. As he read it to himself, the others could see the look of dismay and disbelief on his face.

"Read it out, Neville." said Harry, quietly. Neville looked up for a few moments then began to read the page out loud.


CASE SUSPECTS 4A. TRACK NOTES

ABSOLUTE CONFIDENTIALITY.

D00 T15:00. Shacklebolt instruction. I am to surveil Hogwarts, esp. D. Malfoy & other? McGonagall informed.

D14. T05:50. Malfoy contact must be teacher. Leave scan: owls, floo, portkey maps.

D23. T02:15. Obscured message intercept Prof. B. Cannot be Binns. Know I can trust Anthea so it must be Babbling! Bathsheba Babbling! Runes studies. Lay trace.

D28. T11:10. Not Anthea! I can't believe it. I won't believe it. Must be deception. test. CHECK AGAIN!

D30. T06:00. Must bitterly accept truth of pensieve memory even though destroyed. Not tampered. How could I be such a fool! Anthea Bingley! I covered up for her two years ago. I gave her an alibi when she was suspected of that muggle attack. I never believed it of her. But it was her. Now this. Plotting with the Malfoys and other Death Eaters. For what? What is their plan? Kingsley informed. He wants evidence.

D39. T11:00. Harry info (see Case 6B) may relate. I will not inform Kingsley unless Harry agrees. At least Harry is someone I trust absolutely. I must protect him somehow. I dare not yet inform him about Bingley. She was a friend. Betrayed him as she betrayed me. He won't believe it. I didn't! I don't want to be the one to tell him. I must give him every protection I can.


Harry sat down hard, deep in thought. He was very disappointed. "Who can we trust anymore?" he said aloud.

"We can trust each other, Harry." smiled Luna.

Harry nodded slowly. "I wish it wasn't her. I don't want it to be her," he said despondently with his head hung low.

"I'm afraid it is though." said Neville quietly. Harry looked up. Neville was looking through the omnioculars. "Take a look." He handed them to Harry. Harry raised the glasses to his eyes and looked through.

"Look back over the last day or two, Harry."

Harry scanned back. There was no doubt. He could clearly see two figures had been following them. Draco Malfoy and Professor Bingley were together, coming over the same terrain that Worley's team themselves had recently crossed. They could only be a few miles behind them. Numbly, Harry handed the glasses to Rolf and Luna and walked over to the fire to get another cup of tea just for something to do to occupy his mind.

Ginny came over and stood with Harry. She did not speak. She did not fill her cup. Just being there was enough.

It was well after daybreak before Worley, Ron and Hermione returned but they were quite excited. They had detected a dark hex quite quickly but it had taken them a long time to break it down. Even then there was no visible effect but long sections of rock were no longer solid. It was as if a narrow fissure was covered by imaginary rock - a mere surface without substance.

It was too bright now to attempt to see if the fissure led down into the east pass so they decided they would proceed after sunset. As the group relaxed and prepared for an inactive day, Worley's eyes fell upon her bag, intentionally still open upon the stool.

"Harry!"

"No - it was me - I opened it." said Neville. There was a long pause. It was obvious from the silence that they had read the notes.

"I'm sorry. I couldn't bring myself to tell you. I know Professor Bingley is very popular." began Worley.

"Bingley! It was Bingley?" shouted Ron. He and Hermione stared at one another in astonishment.

"She's nearby isn't she? Her and Draco." said Harry.

"Yes. They must know the way. She's known all along. They could pass us easily but they are holding back. This is why I am concerned." said Worley.

"You think there's a trap ahead?" asked Neville.

"It's possible. Bingley and Malfoy may deliberately try to hamper our escape."

"What do you suggest?" asked Rolf.

"I hate to say it but I see no course but to proceed. If we return now we return with nothing. Besides, I do not think there can be too many Death Eaters in this remote place and we are an experienced and skilled team of eight. We can evade them and find what we came for. Remember, if we have to leave in a hurry we can go directly back to the portkey very quickly."

As the sun went down they broke camp and made the ascent fairly quickly. Worley warned them to be careful where they stepped because the stone deception was no longer solid underfoot over the fissure. She went a short distance ahead to locate the gap again then signalled back to them.

The descent into the fissure was strange - like walking down a slope into a pool with a stone surface. Harry went first with Ginny. Harry watched first his feet then his legs disappear below the surface. When it was over waist high he ducked under rather than keep on walking down - blind to what was underfoot. Ginny ducked with him and they managed to grin at each other despite their anxiety. Looking up, the enchanted rock surface was completely transparent from below. The darkening sky was still visible and the moon was clearly rising. They could see the others descending through the false rock just above them and Ginny grabbed Ron's ankle to give him a scare. Ron let out a yelp and Worley swore at him to keep quiet.

At the bottom of the shallow fissure they could see they were on the top edge of the south side of a deep, long, dry gap that cut savagely through the granite and sloped down to their left in the direction of the valley. They knew this had to be the east pass. Worsley was trying to apparate down first to check if it was safe. But within a few seconds she gave up this attempt and exclaimed, "Apparating is not working. There's no doubt that dark forces are in place to block it. We'll have to climb down."

The sides, steep cliffs, fifty to one hundred feet high in places, were of dark rock in various shades of dull grey. They were all cracked and broken - distorted shapes of stone. However, apart from a few knocks and scratches to the climbers, this made the descent not too difficult - like making ones way down a giant shattered staircase. The girls were not too proud to lean on the shoulders of the youths and accept a hand here and there. Worley led the way with confidence and they were soon all down within the pass as the last of the daylight faded to black.

Although the imposing walls of the chasm overhung slightly and were all one long dark shadow, the floor of the gap was ghostly visible in the moonlight and so Worley urged everyone not to create a light of any kind as they could see reasonably well. The rocky ground was softened slightly with rough grey soil littered with stones of every size. Scrubby vegetation struggled to fit in every gap it could find but there was precious little. An unpleasant chill wind funnelled down the channel and scattered the dusty soil over the swaying vegetation but at least it was heading in the same direction that the group were.

Through the middle of the pass a depressed channel cluttered with worn stones was a clear indication of a very old track that was not made entirely by wild animals. Here and there, stones had been arranged to one side to hold up a bank of stony earth or to level severe gaps in the terrain. It did not appear to have been used much recently because the sparse, stringy vegetation grew within the track as readily as outside of it.

Worley led the way together with Rolf. Not long after they had started to move down the old trail, however, Professor Worley called a halt and gathered the group together. She looked back up the slope they had traversed so far with some concern on her face.

"I don't like this pass at all. Very little cover, trapped on either side, and exposed from above. We're helplessly vulnerable if Bingley and Draco are coming down behind. Don't underestimate them - Bingley is worse than three or four Death Eaters any day."

Worley looked very strained, "Harry, I need to watch our backs. Would you take the lead? Don't take any risks though. That long pale bag is too cumbersome and too visible in this moonlight. Here, let me carry it. You keep your eyes peeled ahead and everyone else keep watching the top of the pass walls. And everybody - have your wands ready."

There was a soft murmuring from all as they drew their wands. Ron was moving to the outside to try to give Hermione and Ginny some cover but he must have known it was more instinctive than practical. Neville kept to one side of Luna while Rolf held to the other. Such is the ancient protective instinct even though the female is as powerful as the male in a community that survives primarily by its magic. Rolf felt rather ineffective. Unlike all the others, he had never fought Death Eaters; he had focused on defence against wild magical creatures not dark arts. Furthermore, Worley had primarily led this expedition and now Harry was leading the way. He wondered why he was here at all. Still, at least he could attempt to give what protection he could to Luna.

Harry kept looking back to make sure everyone was still with him. Wide-eyed faces, white in the moonlight, were all staring back at him. Worley gave him a reassuring nod. She was keeping a very close eye on them all. Luna seemed to be talking. Rolf was taking no notice. Keep quiet, Luna! No, she was looking straight ahead - at Harry! What was she saying? She was mouthing something silently. Same thing over and over. Harry could barely see in the moonlight. Then he caught it. Omnioculars! What did she mean? Ask Worley for her omnioculars to scout ahead? Why didn't she come forward and tell him what she meant? ... It was something to do with the omnioculars.

Why? Now she was saying Why? Harry wondered what she meant. This was Luna so Harry took her seriously. Harry knew she was Ravenclaw-smart. Harry wondered whether to pause and ask. No, if it was important, Luna would come forward. Worley was keeping a close watch on all of them - keeping them safe. They would be alright. But why was Worley not looking backwards - checking for Bingley and Draco? Perhaps Luna was wondering whether to suggest she use the omnioculars.

Luna was now pointing a finger at the bag she was carrying close in front of her. Had she got the omnioculars in the bag? What the hell! I'm not as smart as you Luna! Come and tell me! Think backwards, Harry, Think backwards.

Harry kept moving furtively onward, looking back now and again and wondering about Luna. It would have made sense he supposed that Worley would be using her omnioculars and scanning behind them. She always did when keeping lookout or scouting ahead. Except that time Neville took her notes! Why did she leave her omnioculars in her bag! Why didn't she take them with her to use?

For several minutes Harry pondered this then with a sickening sense of realization deep inside, he suddenly knew what Luna was trying to tell him. Worley never forgot anything important like her bag. She must have left the notes and the omnioculars for them to find. She wanted them to find them! But why? Harry knew something was wrong but he could not think exactly what.

He could see large dark shapes ahead. The pass narrowed and a large boulder field had accumulated in it.

Had Worley been so embarrassed to tell him about Bingley that she left the bag for him to find out himself? Unlikely. There was only one explanation. A wave of fear passed through Harry. It was all false. The notes - perhaps even the images of Bingley and Draco together in the omnioculars - they were all completely false. Worley! Luna is trying to tell me that Worley is setting us up.

Harry whirled around and dropped. He saw Luna do the same the instant she saw him. Harry called in a loud whisper, "Down Everyone!" then proclaimed with all the force he could command, "Protego Horribilis!"

But it was too late. Worley was gone - she had the bag with the broomsticks and there was no apparating possible. From both sides and from above was heard the hiss and crackle of dark curses which shattered Harry's attempted shield charm before it was half-formed. Ron cried out, he was yelling, moving close to cover Hermione - but both were snared - both bound very quickly. Hermione fell badly on her arm and screamed with pain then was silenced by another curse. Ginny down! Ginny is down! Ginny not moving! God no! Not Ginny!" A destructive curse exploded in their midst. Luna gone! Completely gone. Neville had already shielded himself and was fighting valiantly. His protective charm was weakening though and he was struggling, firing off curses upwards blindly at an angle. Yelling curses, he was now down on one knee but still refusing to yield. Harry had one glimpse of Rolf dodging and weaving but his wand had been already taken. Harry himself, the main target, was already frozen in the first second of the attack, his wand plucked away from him as if from a helpless child. Then another curse hit him, then another. No pain - but just utterly helpless, slumping to the ground, watching events happen around him. He did not know which curses had hit him but he knew he would not be moving for a while. He was out of it. Why was I so slow to realize what Luna meant!

In the dark walls of the pass on both sides, Harry could faintly see shadows moving, crouched in cave openings, near-invisible. Shadowy figures up above on the cliff tops. They had all been waiting. They knew we were coming alright.

Harry couldn't turn now but with his limited view he felt Neville was down. All of them were down. All was lost.

Then two Death Eaters moving silently towards them from the direction they had been heading, from the boulder field. They were still cautious; coming to check. One of them was coughing and wiping the wind-blown dust from his eyes.

"Did you get them all?" was shouted from behind - back up the pass the way they had come - Worley's voice!

"Yes! They're all down. One dead I think." It was a harsh, methodical voice from one of the Death Eaters.

Dead? Only one dead? One body he means? Ginny? Luna destroyed? Harry's mind became as numb as his body. He could not think straight. He did not want to think - not if Ginny and Luna were dead.

"Where's Lovegood you fool!" It was Worley's voice again, closer - amongst them. Lights going up. More lights cast up, bright spheres of light floating high illuminating this whole stretch of pass with an eerie glow and casting slowly moving shadows.

"Idiot! Didn't you set the anti-apparation spells all the way along?" Worley shouted.

"Yes, yes, they're set."

Harry thought about his cloak - his invisibility cloak. But he couldn't reach his bag - couldn't even feel where it was for the numbness. Then he remembered - Luna had his bag! You wonderful, clever girl! She must have been keyed up ready for this while my dumb brain was still trying to add up one and one is two. If only I had realized just a few seconds earlier we could have put up multiple shields - might have had a chance.

Harry considered that Luna was their one hope now. She would know that Worley would put out magical traces so Luna's first move would be to get as far away as possible and wait her opportunity. Or could she apparate direct back to the portkey? How long to fetch help? Two, three hours? Half a day?

Suddenly Harry felt a dull blow from a boot in his left side. "This one's Potter. Whatever else, he's mine" The assailant came around so Harry could see who it was but Harry already knew the voice. "You hear that Potter? You're mine. You and all of your friends are going to pay!" It was Draco Malfoy, sneering at him.

"Who's this... Granger the filthy mudblood! and stupid, dumb Weasley!" Draco was strutting about, clearly elated. "Another Weasley!" He hesitated then muttered, "Oh well, good riddance."

A sound from Ron, somewhere between a stifled groan and a scream, fighting against the binding curse which held him.

"Enough!" shouted Worley. "Lestraithe! Get over here! Check out the Weasley girl."

The Death Eaters had removed their masks. One short, stocky figure, Harry could not tell man or woman yet, came over and crouched down. A minute passed. Two - while Harry lay as if he was dead; living only to hear what was said next.

"Dying. She won't last." said Lestraithe finally, standing up. It was a middle-aged woman's voice, nasal and sneering.

"Fix her! We might need her." said Worley firmly.

Draco spoke, but his first euphoria was gone as reality set in and his voice sounded deflated, "What's the point? They're all going to be dead eventually you said."

"You fool Malfoy! Can't you open your mouth without... Bingley is still out there thanks to your incompetence. So is Lovegood. We may need hostages to force them to surrender. We may also need test subjects - unless you want to volunteer. For the same reason, don't dispose of the mugglefilth until later." Worley was tilting her head to indicate Hermione.

"It was all I could do to escape that stupid cow Bingley!" said Draco in a low voice.

Bingley was on their side! Draco must have been her prisoner. She must have been forcing him to lead her here. Harry tried again to move but there was no response from his body at all.

Harry felt something grip his ankle then he was being pulled around and dragged away. His numbed body felt no pain as the rough ground tore at his skin then he was thrown in a heap, turned, and pulled up to a sitting position against a rock.

"Where's Lovegood?" Worley was speaking in a loud but controlled voice at him but he couldn't answer; his mouth was as useless as the rest of his body; his head was lolling to one side. He hoped his tongue wasn't hanging out. He couldn't feel it.

Worley was chanting something and pointing her wand at Harry but was having no success at reviving him, "Merlin! How many of you hit Potter? Lestraithe! Get over here. I want Potter to be able to talk!"

"You want me to leave this one?" said Lestraithe in her low whining voice.

"No. No. Finish fixing her up then get over here." Worley walked off out of Harry's line of vision and now Harry could see Lestraithe, hooded, bulky, crouched down over Ginny. She was turning around, using her wand back and forth above the prone figure and softly chanting in a low voice. Soon he could see all the others except Ginny were being dragged nearby. Ron and Hermione were conscious and propped up to a sitting position like Harry with their backs to cold hard stone. Hermione whimpered with pain as she was moved.

Now Lestraithe was calling to someone and turned and came over to Harry and started doing tests with her wand. Over her left shoulder Harry saw two Death Eaters grab Ginny's body roughly and start dragging her carelessly nearer as if she were an old sack. She seemed totally limp; her limbs were flailing about like a large rag doll as she was bumped over the rough ground.

Lestraithe glanced back. "Stick her down there. She won't be sitting up forever..." Lestraithe muttered the last part and tailed off at the end.

What did she say? Did she say she won't be sitting up forever? Or for a while?

The woman started examining Harry, "It's amazing that Potter is still alive. Five, possibly six - no seven curses. You certainly made sure of him. If only the Dark Lord had left it to his Death Eaters. The great Potter was easy. He could not rely on luck forever."

Harry felt something move through his upper body and head and felt pain in his face and body. His lower legs still felt numb but he could begin to move his arms. He groaned.

Lestraithe slapped him hard across the face again and again, back and forth as if she were enjoying it. "Got yer voice back have yer? Can yer feel that can yer?" Lestraithe turned her head, "Worley!"

Worley came over and addressed Harry. There was none of her previous friendliness at all. She spoke dispassionately as if she were a ticket inspector asking for someone's ticket, "Where's Lovegood?"

Harry just stared at her.

There was no warning; no preliminaries. Worley just pointed her wand coldly and spoke quietly, "Crucio."

Harry felt agonizing, unbearable pain throughout his upper body. His legs were still half-numb. He screamed - a long, long, sustained scream. In the middle he thought he heard Ron grunt and Hermione made a stifled sob.

"Where's Lovegood?"

Again, Harry just stared coldly back at her more from shock than heroism. His mind was paralysed - filled with nothing but the memory of that all-consuming agony and the terror of its return.

Worley stood up and turned to Neville. Once again there was only the cold-blooded voice saying "Crucio."

Neville had been stupefied. He couldn't scream. His body convulsed and his face contorted, all silently except for his heels kicking the hard stone beneath him. Harry wished Neville could have been numb like he, himself had been a short time ago.

"Where is she Harry?" Worley continued with Neville's torture.

Harry found his voice and shouted hoarsely, "Stop! Stop!"

"Well, Harry? Where is she?"

Harry yelled loudly at Worley in a panic, "No idea! I don't know! I thought they'd destroyed her! If she escaped I had no knowledge of it! My guess is she will lie low then sneak back and kill you all one by one. I hope it's a slow death."

Draco laughed. "Think we're stupid do you?"

"How did she get away, Harry?"

"Don't use my first name ever again. You have the nerve to talk to me like we're friends?" Harry glared at Worley.

"Crucio."

Again Neville writhed.

"How did she get away?"

"I don't know! I don't know! She's smart. She's Ravenclaw. She had you spotted alright. She must have gone immediately she saw you sneak away like the rat that you are."

Worley didn't respond. She walked off, apparently disinterested, towards Ron. She grabbed him and dragged him off - around into the shadow of the high, crooked rock he had been leaning against. Worley was using her wand, chanting but Harry couldn't see Ron nor hear him scream. Hermione was also straining to see but could not either. She looked despairingly at Harry.

Ron groaned - then repeatedly, again and again. Now he was up on his feet, staggering around. Worley was manipulating him, using the imperius curse to control him. She brought him around into the open, slightly away from the group.

"You will tell me what I want to know, Potter." again Worley was cold, unemotional, "I will put out the flames as soon as you tell me. It's up to you."

Harry wondered what she meant by that but not for long.

"Incendio!"

Ron simply burst into flames. He shrieked in his agony and ran around madly, beating at his chest, trying to extinguish the fire, shrieking, shrieking. Hermione was squirming, whimpering, twisting against her pain first to see, then twisting again to not see, eyes rolling in their sockets, mad with terror and despair.

"I can still stop this, Potter! I can make it good."

"I swear I know nothing! For God's sake I swear on my mother's grave I don't know where Luna went." screamed Harry, "Stop it! Stop it! I'll do what I can to help, Whatever you want! Please stop it. Help him!" Harry was sobbing now.

Ron was farther away; a running fireball, still shrieking, flames streaking behind him.

"No, I don't think so." Worley's voice was still cold but now she raised it to a shout, "Listen everyone here so there is no doubt. There is nothing I will not do. Understand?"

Ron sagged down to his knees. His high-pitched shrieks reduced to low howling then to nothing and he fell face down and lay motionless and silent, still burning.

Worley walked away out of sight in the opposite direction. Draco stared after her for a few seconds then turned and looked at Ron's still-burning corpse. He was clearly shaken.

Harry looked across at Hermione. She had sagged back against her rock. Her eyes were dull, staring upwards; her mouth sagged open.

Harry tilted his body and managed to fall forward onto the ground. His arms were weak but useable. Draco looked at him briefly then walked off. Harry dragged and clawed himself along the ground towards Ginny. He could feel the sharp stony dirt under his fingernails and taste it in his mouth. Neville laying helplessly stupefied, looked into Harry's face but if he was looking for any kind of hope he did not see any there. Rolf appeared to be unconscious next to him.

Ginny was lying on her side facing back up the pass the way they had come in. Harry was grateful she could not have seen her brother die even if she had been conscious. He crawled up close, his face in the dirt beside hers. Her long red hair lay dishevelled and dusty half across her mouth but the faintest fluttering reassured Harry that she was breathing. There was a sharp stone pressing against her cheek just below the eye. Harry gently moved it away and cupped one hand under her face, smoothing her hair back with his other. Her pendant had slipped out on its chain from her scarf and lay on the earth between them.- it was barely glowing at all - the palest yellow.

"Ginny, Ginny." murmured Harry, not knowing what he could do.

The pendant flared orange! She was conscious! Her eyes opened very slightly and looked at Harry.

Harry's eyes widened. He glanced over at the group of Death Eaters but they were not paying too much attention. He slipped the pendant quickly back behind her scarf. Ginny was saying something; moving her lips silently. Harry put his ear to her mouth; felt her breath carry one word.

"Wand."

Harry stared at Ginny. He understood. He moved his hand slowly to her waist, searching, a question on his face.

"Back" mouthed Ginny.

Harry slid his hand around Ginny's waist to her back, up under her coat and along her spine. It was there! A wand. Not just a wand. Harry knew which wand it would be. The only one it could be. Carefully he undid a couple of buttons and slipped his fingers inside. The wand was held fast somehow against her warm skin. Ginny murmured something softly, an incantation. He felt the wand released. He had it! He could already feel its power through his hand and arm. Carefully, gently, blindly, he slowly worked it down into his sleeve all the time looking closely into Ginny's eyes and she into his.

Very steadily, still looking into her eyes, he moved the wand over Ginny's twisted body, repeating softly over and over, "Vulnera Sanentur Volgaris!"

Ginny released a sigh and Harry could see the relief in her face, "Help Hermione." was all she said then she closed her eyes. Harry slid the end of her scarf up to cushion her face against the stones. He gave her a soft kiss on the lips and crawled slowly away.

As Harry crawled around the far side of Ginny to get nearer to Hermione, he glimpsed something on the ground further away - something over in dark shadow; something that made him stop abruptly. It was a body. With a shock he knew immediately whose it must be. He had to get closer. He crawled sluggishly towards it, his eyes on it but flicking back and forth to the Death Eaters. They had set up a camp fire and were preparing and eating food. Hopefully they would not notice him.

"Where you going Potter?" it was Draco, spooning food from an open can. Other Death Eaters looked up.

"Gotta pee." Harry groaned.

Draco said something about him being lower than an animal. The Death Eaters laughed and carried on talking and eating. Harry crawled half way around the rock but left his legs sticking out so they could see he was still there. He did not want anyone coming to investigate. The body was face down but Harry knew who it was. With an effort he rolled the body over onto its back. Ron stared dumbly up at him, particles of dirt and stone all over his face. He was paralysed; numb.

Harry wasted no time. He cautioned Ron to keep quiet and released him with a counter-curse.

"She used Fobey. I couldn't warn you, Harry." was the first thing he said as he spluttered dirt from his mouth.

"I know. I know. Ron, you have to get away. They can't..."

"I won't leave Hermione." said Ron flatly.

"You must help Hermione! You must! The only way to help her is for you to try to work back up the pass and hope to find Bingley or Luna."

Ron thought for a few seconds. He was flexing his arms, checking out his body. Then he repeated very, very firmly, "I will not leave Hermione. Would you leave Ginny?"

Harry nodded, "I'll get back to you. Stay here then." He paused then added, "Be ready. Whatever I can think up. Be ready, Ron."

Harry released the curses from his own legs but continued to crawl as if he could not walk. He dragged himself back out from the rock and headed towards Hermione. She was still staring upwards. Draco looked over towards him but said nothing, apparently satisfied now he had come back and was visibly helpless. Neville and Rolf still lay motionless on the ground between the cluster of rocks.

Harry reached Hermione and worked around to her side. He pretended to try to drag himself up to sit beside her and he pretended to fail. He remained laying on the ground. He knew Draco might be watching.

"Hermione... Hermione..."

There was no response.

Harry whispered to her, "Don't make a noise. Don't make a sound. Ron is alright. He's alive! Worley used Fobey to impersonate him. She burnt Fobey not Ron!"

Hermione stirred. Her head turned around and down towards Harry. Her expression was a mixture of disbelief, fearful hope, incredulity. She stared at Harry, reading his face. She knew Harry well. She knew it was the truth. Her dead mind came back to the emotions she had left far behind. Tears sprang to her eyes and rolled silently down. Harry took her hand.

"No Hermione. No. Be brave. Be brave for Ron. Remain still. Don't draw attention." whispered Harry. He slipped out his wand along the ground, healed Hermione's arm and released the binding curse.

"You have to be ready. Hermione?" it was a question.

"I'm ready." she whimpered, keeping still. Harry could see her flexing her limbs slightly, unnoticeably, testing her freedom. Harry reached up a limp hand and wiped the tears gently from her face then he crawled away.

There were eight Death Eaters around the camp fire and Draco. Some must have moved off further along the pass but there were still too many here. And where was Worley? She was completely cold, calculating, unpredictable. Perhaps she was watching from the shadows. Perhaps she knew all that was going on.

Harry looked over at Neville. He was partly facing Harry's way. His eyes were open, conscious, staring at Harry inquiringly. Harry turned slightly on the ground to hide his right sleeve from the Death Eaters. He slipped the wand partly out, just enough for Neville to see it. Neville's eyes widened but he could give no other sign he understood. Rolf still lay motionless, facing the other way.

Harry wondered if he should crawl over to Neville to release him from the curse. Might it be one crawl too many? Harry lay where he was, pretending to be exhausted. Hoping not to draw any attention to himself or anyone while he thought. What next? What on earth could he do while so many were there? He started to crawl very, very slowly towards Neville.

"Where you crawling to now, Potter?" it was Draco. He had finished his meal and came over. "Seems fitting doesn't it? Crawling on your belly like a worm."

He pointed his wand and uttered an inaudible curse. Harry felt a pain penetrate his back into his chest. It wasn't the cruciatus curse but it was still painful like ice and fire and suffocation all in his lungs together. This must be Draco's idea of fun. It reminded Harry of Dudley Dursley's punches from years ago - mindless and sadistic. Harry gasped for air and started to crawl away - not towards Neville but just away from Draco.

"Crawl. Come on let's see you crawl!" Draco turned to the others and laughed, "The Boy Who Blundered!" He hit Harry again with the curse.

Harry choked again and crawled further, trying to escape the stabs of pain. He started pleading and begging, sobbing out the words with no air to spare, "Please ... Draco. ... can't ... take ... any ... more."

Draco was affected by Harry's show of cowardice. He followed him as he crawled but he did not use his wand; he was disgusted now he had broken his enemy, unsure what to do. Harry was still pleading, his chest heaving for more air. Crawling - crawling until he had reached where he wanted to be... behind Ron's rock, hoping and praying Ron would not let him down. Harry was up on his hand and knees like a dog now crawling fast into the shadow. This triggered Draco to wake from his reverie. He roared with anger, "Come back here, Potter!" He strode after his prey, blind with rage.

Draco never saw what struck him. He never saw Ron leap up in the shadow. But he felt the rock smashing into his jaw and he felt his wand flung away. Ron dragged him down, beating him heavily with his fists, pulling him further into the shadows and beating him some more. Even after Harry's softly-spoken "stupefy", Harry had to hold Ron's arm to remind him to stop.

A couple of Death Eaters looked over towards the shadow. Harry moaned loudly and resumed his pleading and begging, "Draco ... please ... no!" Then he whispered to Ron, "We can take them. You and I, Ron."

Harry stood up, stretching and testing his legs while looking at Ron for confirmation. Ron nodded and grabbed Draco's wand. They peered out from the shadows to judge the distance. They ran. They ran - stiffly and clumsily but hard - directly towards the Death Eaters idling around the campfire, some standing, some sitting on the ground. Harry and Ron's attack was completely unexpected. Ron may have took two or three; certainly those were the only three left alive after a few seconds. Harry with the elder wand cut through the others like a swaithe. He cut them down. He killed them. He felt no mercy. Harry understood now how that was possible. He understood how you could hate that much. He understood because now he loved someone so very, very much.

Harry saw their wands, stacked like trophies in an open bag near the fire. "Get the wands! Keep a look out!" he shouted.

Harry raced towards Neville. Ron first turned to go to Hermione but she was already on her feet and hobbling on stiff limbs to Ron and the bodies of the Death Eaters to get her wand. Harry released Neville who needed no discussion; he joined Hermione and Ron to try to find his wand.

Harry was running towards Ginny now. She was clearly still weak but had pushed herself up to one elbow. Then there was a commotion from further down the pass beyond the boulder field. Ron signalled to indicate more Death Eaters were coming up. They must have heard the fight. Harry stared at Ginny just for a moment, "Stay low!"

Harry ran back to the others. As he did so he sensed more figures coming down from the other direction, further up the pass - the way they had come in. Harry felt a wave of despair. They could not hope to defend against attacks from both directions at once. But no - it was Luna! It was a terrifying, formidable Luna Lovegood racing the wind, driven by a spell of fury - wand in hand flashing back and forth at her side like a relay baton - and followed by Bingley! - Bingley flowing like a torrent of liquid light over the ground without a broomstick; dirt dust blowing up behind her - weaving left and right to check the canyon walls. They must have been waiting their chance to move in.

With renewed hope, Harry turned and ran to face the new onslaught of Death Eaters. There were ten or twenty of them but they were approaching too spread out, split into groups, some further ahead, some behind, unorganized and without cover. Ron and Hermione had the higher ground and plenty of rock cover. They hit the first wave of five Death Eaters and put down four of them. Harry got there in time to curse the fifth who crumbled up into a badly broken ball.

Neville was soon at Harry's side. He had not found his own wand but just grabbed any he could find. The next wave of Death Eaters were more ready. There were eight or nine of them running, dodging, screaming curses. But now they were faced with a determined wall empowered by hate: Ron, Hermione, Harry with the elder wand, Neville, Luna and Anthea Bingley. They stood side by side. They did not waver. Their shields blocked the first Death Eater curses but those shields were only needed once.

The screams of the Death Eaters who fell caused the few behind them to turn and flee. Harry did not let them get far. Then there was silence except for the moaning of one of the fallen which Hermione quickly put an end to without pity.

Hermione and Ron were holding each other like they never wanted to let go ever again. Bingley surveyed the dead but said nothing for a while. She gave Hermione and Ron a minute then said quietly, "Ron, Hermione. Keep watch. Worley is still a threat. Don't underestimate her."

She turned to Harry and said quietly, "No more deliberate killing, understand?"

Harry nodded but said firmly, "You'd better take care of Worley then. Keep her away from me." He strode off to see how Ginny was. Bingley ran after him and grabbed him by the shoulder.

"I won't cover for you beyond this, Harry. Get a grip on yourself."

Harry shrugged her off and resumed his walk. He knew that the killing had not been fully intended but had been caused by his underestimation of the elder wand and of his own increasing powers. Nevertheless, he had not held back he told himself nor had he cared. Was he becoming as cold-blooded as Worley? As Voldemort?

Luna was already crouching over Rolf, checking his injuries and curses and Bingley went to help her. Neville went to search for his wand again.

Harry helped Ginny into a sitting position against a rock. "How are you feeling?"

"Weak, really weak. But apart from a few aches it's not too bad and I'm getting stronger. Did you get them all?"

"We don't know. Worley is still out there."

"Incarcerate!" Bingley was pointing her wand at Harry who rolled over, bound and helpless. "I'm really sorry, Harry. I'd be failing in my duty if I just let you..."

Bingley tailed off as she was turning round to look at the others. Five wands were levelled against her.

"Professor Bingley, we love you but we need Harry to keep us alive. We need him more than we need you." said Luna.

"It wasn't Harry's fault! He would never deliberately..." it was Ginny speaking but Harry was shaking his head at her.

Bingley stared from one to the other then with a look of realisation she lowered her wand and visibly sagged. "I don't want to know about that. You others - find a way to persuade him." She walked off to keep watch and scout around.

Ron turned to Harry and released his bonds. "She's right, mate. You have to cool it, Harry. Using the killing curse is not what we're about..."

Ginny interrupted him angrily. "Harry never used the killing curse! You never saw any green flashes did you!"

"And what about you, Ron? You would have beaten Draco to death if I'd not stopped you..." said Harry.

"You'd better check his injuries Ron - He's not worth going to Azkaban for." said Hermione.

Ron went off to the big rock. Neville sat down. He had retrieved his own wand from the grip of a Death Eater and was examining it for the tenth time. It had been knocked about badly but seemed intact. To a witch or wizard, their wand is something very personal, very special to them. Rolf and Luna sat down with him and Rolf said he was uncertain whether they should light a fire or not. Luna created a non-luminous fire charm whose dark flames hovered just above the ground and they all sat close around it to get some comfort from its heat. Its atmosphere was sombre but Harry helped Ginny to sit nearer and they all stared at one another gloomily.

Ron came running back and said in a loud whisper, "He's gone! Draco's gone!"

Harry instinctively started to rise to his feet to go and look for himself but sank back down immediately. "How? How can that be? I stupefied him myself."

"Worley has been here. She took him." Professor Bingley had returned. "I've been looking around. I could see some extra tracks that could only be her. Why she bothers with him I don't know."

"Test subject." said Hermione. "I've been trying to think what she could mean by that."

"What did she actually say?" asked Bingley.

"She said something about needing test subjects - 'unless you want to volunteer' she said to Draco. She said it like it was the sort of thing nobody would volunteer for."

Luna stood up and looked at everyone silently for a few seconds. ""In that case I think we are all..." She tailed off and sat down again.

Harry stared at Luna. "What is it Luna?"

"Remember the mysterious curses back at Hogwarts? Harry, do you remember what I said in the headmistress's office?"

Bingley spoke up first, "I do. You said 'If someone wanted to do something really bad they might want to practice first.' Draco got expelled for those curses."

"Yes, but he did not cast them." said Luna. "Draco will never be that good a wizard."

"Worley! It was Worley" said Harry, "But how? There was definitely nobody there. That was the first thing I tested for."

"Nobody needed to be there. The curses were cast elsewhere. They travelled - they homed in on their target. Do you remember when Professor Worley issued the class books at the beginning of the school year?" said Luna.

"All teachers can do that." said Hermione.

"Yes but they just distribute to each desk. Don't you remember that Draco's books automatically moved to Pansy? They magically guided themselves to whomever they belong to or to anyone who would pass them on. That is very advanced magic." said Luna.

"You think something horrible was going to home in on us as test subjects?" asked Ron.

"No, the opposite. I think we, the test subjects, were to home in on whoever we belong to." said Luna.

Everyone started to voice their confusion all at once but Luna continued. "Professor Worley expected us to be her captives. She would not need anything to reach us. She wanted us to test something, something so dangerous that she needed a method to retrieve us - to try again - perhaps like fishing for plimpies you reel in the bait and cast it again in a different part of the river."

Everyone was now aghast and protesting at once but Bingley raised her voice above the others, "You mean it is likely all other known magical methods of travel, apparation, portkeys, even broomsticks, would not work don't you?"

"Yes, but also, the test subject might not even be able to try." said Luna sombrely. "Worley would cast her spell and the individual would be drawn to whoever they truly belong - Ginny would be drawn to Harry for instance."

There was another gloomy silence.

"Well, now she's got Draco as bait. Sooner him than me." said Ron. "Maybe a troll will bite his head off then spit it out before he is reeled in."

"Ron!" exclaimed Hermione.

"Well it's not going to swallow Draco's stinkin' head is it?" said Ron.

Harry laughed drily at Ron's thinking and a few half-heartedly joined in but the laughter faded rapidly when Luna said, "This must be something much worse than a troll."

Harry spoke up, "Luna, I don't know how you worked this all out but it seems obvious now with hindsight. Professor Worley tricked us all into coming here so she would have everyone who knew about the world curse altogether in one place. All that nonsense about needing a team of aurors but not knowing who she could trust."

"And you are concerned you might not get your NEWTS!" smiled Rolf at Luna.

Luna said, "I was far too slow. All the clues were there. 'Need a team I can trust...' Professor Worley said and Harry practically threw himself at her. 'I suggest all your friends who know be present at the meeting too' She knew we all would volunteer. If not, she knew exactly who to deal with separately. 'We need an expedition manager' she said, and I recommended you, Rolf! I got you into this mess. She knew all about you and she knew I would foolishly make the suggestion. She has manipulated us all the time."

"What about Malfoy? Why did she get him expelled? Why did she come down on him so hard even on Day One?" asked Neville.

"He couldn't keep his mouth shut. On the first day, he said it wasn't over. He may have been about to blurt out too much. Worley had to hustle him off quickly and give him a good talking to. Did he ever really do that detention? And finally she had to get him expelled just to get him out of the way so he couldn't ruin her plans. But it was also a useful way of falsely explaining the travelling curses."

Harry spoke, "Professor Bingley, she claimed you were an old friend, that she gave you an... an alibi years ago..."

"What!" Bingley exclaimed, "The reverse is true. I would never have called her a friend but I did trust her and foolishly covered up for her when I thought she was innocent. She was suspected of cursing a muggle. I couldn't believe it so I said she was with me at the time. I know better now."

"Is that why you wouldn't like to cover up for me?" asked Harry quietly.

"No, Harry. I was more concerned about you for yourself. I've seen good people changed by hate. But I think I understand now." Bingley did not say openly but Harry felt sure she had guessed about the overwhelming power of the elder wand from Ginny's outburst. Even a simple gouging or blasting spell might kill if a wizard were not used to the wand's strength.

The group talked late into the evening. It was agreed they had little choice but to proceed down to the valley and try to get to the volcano the next morning and that Bingley would lead. They tried to think ahead and plan for every situation but none of them could have planned for the horrors they would eventually have to face. None of them could have foreseen the unthinkable.





Chapter 14: Regroup
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They only had the Weasley tent left but nobody felt much like sleeping that evening and they were sitting outside around a real campfire now with plenty of protective shields in place to obscure both the flames and themselves from outsiders. Harry and Ginny sat apart from the others. After the battle hate adrenalin had worn off, Harry was having to deal with his normal feelings. He could explain his actions to himself but he was unsure if he could excuse them. Harry had come through betrayal, torture and the apparent death of his friends. He wondered if he could have handled it any better.

"What's happened to me Ginny? Dumbledore managed to use the wand without running amok."

"Nothing's happened to you Harry. You're still the same..."

"Yes but..."

"No buts! Listen, you're questioning yourself - that's the difference between you and ... I don't know - Voldemort, Worley, all the Death Eaters. Don't you see? They are all out and out evil. They never question what they do. You'll never be like them. How you feel right now proves it. I'm glad you feel bad about this. I'm glad! I'd be very scared if you didn't. If you were happy about it - then I'd be really worried!"

Hearing the raised voices, the others looked across at Harry and Ginny but it was clear the couple wanted to be on their own; they needed some space.

Harry sighed. He could see the sense in what Ginny was saying but it did not comfort him.

"What troubles me is I don't care about them even now - the ones I killed. I only care about me... about me turning into a... killer. I'm only... I don't know, Ginny. I'm all mixed up."

"You'd never used the wand in battle before. How could you possibly know it would be that powerful?" said Ginny.

"But I should have known!" He said loudly - then lowered his voice, "I knew it was the most powerful wand in the world. It was obvious it would be lethal."

"But you'd never had the chance to try it - to get the feel of it. That's not the same at all. Professor Dumbledore had been using it for years."

"I told him... At least I told his portrait..."

"They're not the same! The portrait is just a magical impression of the sort of things he'd say. It's just a portrait... It's not like a real person or a real promise. Anyway, you never promised. You just said what you were going to do and Dumble... the portrait agreed."

"I know. What I mean is, what I meant - what I really, really meant to do was hide the wand away - never, ever use it. I must have felt even then it was too dangerous..."

"But Professor Dumbledore used it safely! And you just used it and saved us all! I think we'd probably all be dead or worse by now if it was not for that wand!"

"That's the conflict though, isn't it Ginny? Destroy it or try to use it for good and get corrupted by it."

"You're not corrupt!" Ginny looked across at the others staring at her and switched to a whisper, "you're not corrupt, Harry. Believe me, I'd be the first to know. If you were corrupt we wouldn't be having this... discussion. We'd be... I'd be worrying about you and you'd be wondering what all the fuss was about."

There was silence for a while.

"Why'd you bring it Ginny?"

"What! You think now I shouldn't have..."

"No, No! I'm glad you brought it. I just was wondering... What made you bring it?"

"I don't know. Instinct I suppose. I knew you wouldn't bring it and I knew you were likely to be in danger. You usually are."

"What we going to do with it Ginny?"

"Deal with it! - That's what we're going to do. It's not evil. It's just a powerful tool. We don't destroy it. We don't hide it away where we can't get it. We put it back in Gringott's after this and we forget about it - unless we feel something seriously needs it."

"Yeah - but what about now?"

"Well I'd say we seriously need it right now don't you?"

"Then I'm going to practice. Smash a few rocks. It's not the same as... people but maybe I'll get more of a feel for its strength. I don't know."

Harry got up and wandered back through the boulder field up the slope of the pass. Ginny rejoined the others and they all sat quietly talking. Presently there were various coloured lights flashing up the pass. Sounds of small explosions and stone cracking asunder. There were smokes of different colours rising, lit from below by the dazzling illuminations. The commotion seem to recede further and further into the distance even though it seemed to be more and more powerful.

"What's he up to Gin?" asked Ron.

"Just letting off some steam." replied Ginny.

"He ought to stay with us and not put himself at risk of an attack by going off alone." said Rolf.

Right now I think it's the attackers who would be at risk. thought Ginny but she remained silent.

After half an hour, Luna spoke up. "Mind if I speak to him, Ginny?"

"Be my guest. But be very careful."

Luna smiled. "I will!"

She cast her patronus. The hare bounded away up the pass, leading the way for Luna to follow. When it found Harry it did not communicate anything other than its gentle presence. It sat down quietly. There was a calming affect which made Harry turn. When he saw the hare he paused and lowered his wand. Then he recognized whose it was so he waited. Soon Luna came along.

"Hi Harry!"

"Hello Luna."

"I just thought it would be a nice night for a walk. Hope you don't mind."

"Course not."

"Want to come along? Keep me company? If you're not too busy that is."

"Sure. Where to?"

"I'm just going to see a few friends. They're always there for me. They never change. None of my friends change." Luna looked meaningfully at Harry and smiled.

As they walked back together, Luna asked Harry if he had ever tried Hogwarts' double chocolate choker pudding and how special it was if you had it with custard and syrup. She asked him if he thought life was like a pudding and Harry laughed and said no and Luna said that was why she liked pudding so much because it took your mind off things.

When they got back to the others there was a discussion under way about sending for help. Nobody really wanted to leave the others and seeing Luna's patronus reminded them that was the best way to get a message back to Kingsley Shacklebolt. Professor Bingley cast her owl and they watched as it took to the air and began debating how long a patronus might take to cross the continents.

Bingley spoke, "What concerns me more is how long Kingsley will take to get a team of aurors out here. They cannot make a direct portkey like we had. They will need to find someone at the ministry or an auror who has been as near as possible then make their way from there. In addition, they will need the agreement of the Chinese Ministry of Magic. It is actually a formidable journey to arrange. Might be anywhere between half a day and half a week. And I still have not been able to give him any evidence of what is out here other than Death Eaters."

"I think we should just sit tight for a few days," said Ron.

"I don't think we can wait," said Luna.

"Why not?" asked Ron, "The volcano's not going anywhere. Unless you think it's going to..."

"Professor Worley took a lot of care to capture all of us so there would be nobody to reveal this place to the authorities. She also hoped to use us to test something. Now that plan has failed I think she may feel forced to move quickly - without testing. I think Draco is in great danger."

Good! thought Ron, but he kept quiet.

~~~~~~~~~~~~


At first light the next morning they forsook breakfast so they could make an early start and continued their descent down the pass. The air grew warmer as they proceeded and within a few hours it was so pleasant that they bagged up their heavy cloaks and enjoyed the sunshine. The pass had widened until the sides receded into the distance. The rocky terrain levelled out and the stony ground surprisingly quickly was replaced by a healthy-looking soil in which grass grew in abundance and more vegetation was able to root. The group of wizards, still rather sleepy from their previous late night, could see trees ahead. They found these to be only the edge of thicker woodland and as this grew more dense and gave more cover, Bingley called a halt not far from a small lake that stretched away to the south west. Ron and Hermione went over to investigate and found some crabs and freshwater mussels on a muddy beach amongst the yellow reeds that thickly hid most of the water's edges.

Bingley looked across at Rolf. "Let's take a break and have something to eat while we decide which direction to take. We might lose ourselves among all these trees."

Rolf smiled. "Don't worry. I'm in my element now." He held up his strange brass disk and another straight-edged instrument. "Remember, I'm the son of a cartographer. I know fairly precisely where we are and I have an exact bearing on the volcano." He pointed slightly south of west but all one could see were trees.

Rolf felt a little happier with himself now that he was able to contribute. He had spent much of his life in forests such as these. He might not be much use fighting Death Eaters but he could find his way around and not get lost.

In the background, Hermione was laughing with Ron as he waved his wand over the waters. He was rewarded by several fat trout that leapt out at their feet and flapped around. He hid his surprise and knocked them on the head with a stone while Hermione scooped mussels into a billycan from her bag and covered them with water from the lake. Ron picked up his fish by the gills and proudly held up his catch as they walked back to the campfire that Bingley was creating.

"However, I am detecting some strange magical effects I cannot explain." added Rolf.

Bingley turned from the kettle she had placed over the fire and nodded. "I sensed that too. I'll see what I can find out shortly."

"I can tell you something I've already found out," said Neville, as he examined a nearby tree. "This is primarily an oak forest. I also see plenty of poplar and birch. There are even fruit trees - I think I see plum over there." He pointed far ahead in the direction they had been travelling.

"Very interesting, Nev. Five points to Gryffindor. We can have a school field trip after all." said Ron as he deftly filletted and threw his fish into a frypan and jostled it for position next to the kettle and Hermione's billy. He had learnt a lot of magic from being brought up in a Weasley kitchen.

"No, you don't understand. Notice anything odd about these trees?" said Neville.

"Don't tell me they're... diseased? dying?" Harry was concerned. He had been wondering for a long time what form the world curse might take.

"Just the opposite." said Neville.

Rolf suddenly exclaimed, "Why of course! They still have their leaves! I must be half asleep. They should have lost all their leaves this time of year."

"Exactly. And don't you think it's odd - how pleasantly warm it is for November?" asked Neville.

"We're not in Scotland anymore, Neville." said Ginny as she watched her brother using a delicate spell to roll over the slices of fish exactly as their mother did it.

Rolf answered. "No - but this area of China has similarities of climate. Remember the big larch near the stream where we left the portkey? It was completely bare. There could be snow here in a month or two."

They all looked around, suddenly aware of the richness of life around them. There were small animals scurrying about, birdsong in the trees, insects buzzing, a fish rising to a fly. Across the lake they could see wild cattle drinking and a pig was rummaging for roots and fallen fruit.

"Give me a place to stand, and I shall move the world." mused Luna aloud.

"Archimedes? You know about Archimedes?" asked Hermione.

"Of course, he was a very great wizard and wise enough to keep it a secret." replied Luna.

"There's no proof of that." said Ron flatly.

"His whole life is proof." retorted Luna, as if that settled it.

"What's this about, Luna?" asked Harry, cutting Ron off before he could respond.

"If you were going to curse the whole world, where would you want to be?" asked Luna.

"Dunno. On the Moon I guess. Somewhere safe," suggested Harry.

"Harry, you'd soon get tired of all that green cheese." replied Luna solemnly.

"Well, I mean - on Mars or some other planet - no, a really nice planet, safe and warm." said Harry after he thought for a bit.

"That's if you were a muggle. What about a powerful wizard?" persisted Luna.

"Well, then I'd make myself a perfect little world - just big enough for me and my friends. Beautiful sunshiny weather all the time, lots of stuff to eat, no schoolwork, no problems..."

"Sounds like paradise," said Luna simply, as she gazed around.

Luna took took a deep breath and absorbed the wonderful aroma that was filling the air. "How's that fish coming along, Ron?"

The group contemplated Luna's words as they sat around enjoying the tasty fish and mussels together with thick, fresh-cloned bread, well-spread with melting butter running over their fingers. Bingley was looking thoughtful as she ate. She finished eating first and while still holding a steaming cup of strong tea in her left hand, stood up and began casting around to find out what enchantments were in place.

"This is great, Ron," said Harry, "How come you're so useless at potions?"

Ron picked up a fish bone and threw it at Harry. "Not so useless as some."

"Spent a lot of time in the kitchen, didn't you Ron." said Ginny through a mouthful of trout sandwich, "although mum doesn't usually just drop the bones on the floor."

"Seems to be interconnected shield charms of some kind, lots of them. Funny thing is, I think we're inside them. Why aren't they all round the outside of the valley to keep people out?" said Bingley.

"I don't think it's people they want to keep out," said Luna, "The deception - the false rock - does that."

"What then? What else would the shields keep out?" asked Hermione.

"The whole cursed world." said Luna very sadly. "Have you never heard of Noah?"

"Oh ... My ... God," said Hermione, very, very slowly, "This whole valley is an... ark?"

Hermione leapt to her feet, "Ron, I've got to get to my mum and dad!" She grabbed her bag and stormed off along the shore, striding back the way they had come without thinking.

"You can't help them, Hermione. I'm sorry." called Luna sadly, "not out there." Hermione ignored her for a while and kept marching hard. After she had gone about two hundred steps she came to her senses and slackened her pace to a very slow walk. She picked up some stones and started throwing them angrily into the lake. Embarrassed by her show of emotions she wandered further away to think by herself for a while.

What an idiot I am! Why! Why! Why! Of course I can't help them. But I just want to be with them. Yes, like die with them you mean? No. It might not happen for a long time. But it might happen tomorrow. Why are we here? Why aren't there a thousand aurors here doing this? It's not our problem! Yes it is and you know why. There are not that many aurors and there was no evidence. There is still no evidence. So maybe Luna's wrong. Maybe it's all a mistake! You know it's not. But I want to see my mum and dad so badly. Well you can't! Your place is with Ron now. Grow up, Hermione!

Ron let Hermione be. He turned to ask Luna what she had meant. Eventually everyone was standing and talking at one another as the implications of what Luna had said sank in. Noisy disputes started to develop. Professor Bingley called for order and even threatened them with a silencing charm. She turned to Luna, "You said 'not out there.' What have you in mind? What can we do in here?"

Luna stared around at everyone, "I do not know. That's what we have to find out." She paused, looking at all the shocked faces before continuing.

"I'm sorry, truly I am. Perhaps I should not have said what I did. I just thought that everybody already understood." She hesitated again then she spelt it out, "The world really is cursed." She said it very simply but it now had a completely new meaning for them all. Before it had just been a theory; a proposal - so surreal and unthinkable that deep down nobody really believed it or they thought it was something for a future generation to worry about. Now there was a deeper acceptance of the reality of it and it was a shock. But a more immediate danger was upon them; something that was coming right at them through the forest. The only indication was a growing sound that most of them never noticed; but one of them did.

Rolf's years of training and experience driven by the traumatic witnessing of his father's death now took over automatically. He knew that sound. Little did he know, however, that no amount of training could have fully prepared him for the enormity of what was about to happen. "STAMPEDE!" he yelled,"Luna - my bag! Leave all else! Everyone to the Professor! Group! Professor! Group - Those three strongest trees only!" Rolf pointed west to three stout oaks that stood very close together and towards which he was already running.

Rolf was the first to reach the three oaks but he ran past them and began a lengthy incantation. Luna had grabbed his bag and moved rapidly with everyone to Bingley who quickly guided everyone to the three big trees. Hardly anyone understood what was happening but they had the good sense to keep quiet and ask later. A deep, heavy, continuous sound they all could now feel through the ground suggested danger to anyone's thinking. To the west, where Rolf stood, a tearing, splintering sound could be heard and Harry thought he saw trees bending, shifting around the young man. Bingley shouted at them to all group closely and hold tight to each other so they formed a tight, circular knot of people locked together by their arms and a holding charm. Ron was shouting something and angrily trying to pull away but he was held fast.

"Ascendio Universitas!" invoked Bingley. Harry felt his stomach lurch as if he were falling but it was the ground that seemed to drop away from him and he realized they were all rising together up into the lower, sturdiest branches of the three oaks. He could see Rolf better now. Harry was vaguely aware of being pushed and pulled to the central trunk of the tree and of someone binding him there but Harry could not take his eyes off Rolf. A wind had sprung up and Rolf's cloak was flying behind him. Before him, the trees began to move. A dozen trees were bending, ripping themselves out of the ground and moving towards Rolf who was treading backwards, orchestrating them, controlling them, guiding them to follow him. In just these few seconds, the deep, heavy sound had grown rapidly to a thunderous roar. Beyond Rolf and his lurching trees the forest had grown dark - a great black swirling gale of splinters, branches, dust, and dirt, hurtling towards Rolf - towards them all.

Rolf was almost backed up to the three oaks now. The trees he was controlling dug themselves back into the ground; their long roots clawing deep into the earth. They seemed to lean into each other, their strong branches hugging and twining with each other to give themselves strength and support to form a barrier, two, three trees deep.

Then there was a huge crash as the tornado hit. Rolf was already flying up ahead of it into the protection of the oaks. His face was white and frightened. Harry leaned out to grab Rolf but he was beyond his reach. Other hands and arms pulled him to safety though just as the black debris cloud hit the three great oaks. The trees groaned and creaked as the first impact stripped their leaves and twigs but their mighty roots were long mated with mother earth and held fast.

Now there were shapes hurtling and thundering by below them on the ground - big shapes and small, a dark and mindless river of creatures. There were many kinds of beast, real and false, magical and non-magical - but distorted, twisted, demonic. Even to Harry they did not seem to properly belong here. Huge-shouldered buffalo, spiked rhinocerous, elephant with coarse, rasp-like skin, all mixed with savage graphorns, erumpents, griffins, tebos, tiny eyes rolling white in their own terror. None of them could stop even if they wanted to; it was run or be crushed. They were not driven by the storm of debris - they were creating it; compressing and driving it before and with them.

Half-blinded by the wind and the flying dust, Harry created a shield for himself just so that he could see - just to keep the painful dust out of his eyes. He could not see Ginny or Hermione. He hoped and prayed they were on the other side of his tree. Then he remembered - Hermione had marched off only a few minutes ago and was surely lost in the path of this torrent of death. She could not possibly reach the rocks and boulders in the pass before she was overrun.

Harry could make out Bingley creating charm after charm - shield charms for the three oaks. Rolf was doing likewise for the barrier ahead of the three. But it was not going to be enough. Animals were hitting the barricade with such force their bodies were piling up temporarily - only to be swept around the sides later. But the weight was too much and despite Rolf's efforts the barricade was splintering, bending, and twisting. One of its trees finally gave way and flew past the sides of the oaks like a missile, carried along in the dark maelstrom. The weakened barricade fell apart rapidly after that and the last few of its trees were flung together into the torrent.

As the full weight of the stampede hit the exposed leading oak, all three trees shuddered and groaned more desperately. Although Harry could now see everyone was applying shield charms to the oaks, it was clear that they would not hold. Almost reluctantly, Harry pulled out the elder wand, gripping it tightly in the shrieking gale. He knew the spells but had never used them before. As he prepared there was a big impact from some colossus that cracked its bony head on the leading oak and the old tree fractured away from its roots. Harry looked at the wand. Right. So be it. Let's see what you can do! As the main branches of the second oak started to fold back and to crack away, Harry screamed his defiance to the howling wind, "Protego Maxima! Fianto Duri! Repello Inimigotum!"

The leading creatures exploded ahead of the two remaining oaks. A terrible rift now divided the immense surge as animals were hurled either side, some both, as ripped, torn limbs and flesh flew by the oaks. The breach grew, spreading wider and deeper. The stampeding beasts were a wall of living tissue being severed, shredded apart, disintegrated, and destroyed. There was no dazzling light, no special sound, no magical effect visible at all. There was just a growing space empty of creatures, empty of debris, empty of darkness, that cut back through the evil cataract and defeated it. The dark magic itself, that which had conjured and driven the mindless rampage, was broken at last.

As the running animals thinned out, began to slow, and the commotion reduced, Harry became aware he was coughing and gasping - most everyone was, from the choking dust. He could see the bloody, scratched, and bruised faces of his friends. Luna's eyes seemed to be just a dark red mess. Bingley was trying to help her.

Harry could not remember getting out of the tree. He remembered stumbling about, falling over and passing out a few times trying to find Ginny. He remembered crouching by Luna and seeing Bingley cleansing her eyes with a potion from Hermione's bag and Rolf was there too fussing over Luna. Why don't they tell me where Ginny is? Why did Bingley have Hermione's bag? Hermione was dead wasn't she? Yet Hermione's corpse, dripping wet, looked up and asked Harry something that had no meaning. What's that doing here? Doesn't she know she's dead? Is everybody crazy but me?

This side of the forest was virtually destroyed in a long corridor of dead creatures and torn stumps that was so wide he could not properly see the sides through the diminishing dust haze. Neville and Ginny were keeping watch for any kind of follow-up attack that might take advantage while they were weak and regrouping. They both said something to him but he could not understand so just nodded. Even she won't tell me where Ginny is. Harry sank down again to a crouch. Everything was muddled up. He felt badly confused and useless, completely burnt out. He wanted someone to come and help him but everyone was ignoring him, talking nonsense. Then Ron was gripping his shoulder, guiding him to sit leaning against the last of the three oaks still fully standing. Ron poured some water over Harry's face and down his throat. He was talking to him but Harry could not understand. He knew what each word meant but he could not join them together to make sense. Ron was turning to someone, saying something about shock. Harry fainted again.

When Harry awoke, all was peaceful. He felt weak but comfortable. He did not know where he was for a while but for some reason he did not care. It was just nice to lie there. There was something in his hand. He thought about it for a while and as he became properly awake he realized it was Ginny's hand. She had fallen asleep by his side. They were on a blanket on the floor. Harry looked about. They were in the Weasley tent. He could see Neville asleep on the floor nearby and Ron too. Someone was in one of the camp beds. He thought it was probably Luna.

Harry gently detached Ginny's hand and dragged himself to his feet. He felt a bit weak and shaky but stepped cautiously over Neville to go to Luna. She looked quite peaceful in sleep. Her eyes were closed but did not look too bad. They were not bandaged so Harry took that as a good sign. He went out of the tent. The sun was just setting, flaming on the horizon of stunted trees. What had happened to the day? Most of them had had little sleep the night before and been exhausted by the stampede - both mentally and physically. Bingley and Hermione and Rolf were there sitting together keeping watch. Hermione got up and came over when she saw Harry.

"How do you feel, Harry?"

"Not too bad, all things considered. You?"

"Same. Weary."

"What happened to you anyway?"

"Jumped in the lake."

Harry just nodded like someone jumped in a lake to escape a cursed, demonic stampede every day of the week. "How's Luna? I looked at her. She seems OK but..."

Bingley spoke, "She'll be fine. Splinters and sharp dirt in the eyes. Really painful and imagine being completely blind all through that noise. But the damage was not too difficult to heal. I think her shield failed early. Doesn't she ever complain, that girl?"

"I don't think she does," said Harry thoughtfully. "It was Worley wasn't it? Created the stampede I mean."

"Yes. I've put up protective spells and detectors all around. I was careless earlier. We would have had more warning. We had such good cover I relaxed."

Rolf said, "A few minutes warning would not have been enough anyway. Never seen anything like it. Not like that. I'm usually prepared for the occasional graphorn but... They didn't belong here... conjured from elsewhere, multiplied."

"You did good, Rolf. We would not have lasted more than a few seconds without you. It's just complete devastation." said Harry. He looked around in the last of the red glow of the sunset. How quickly man turns heaven into hell, he thought to himself bitterly.






Chapter 15: Dead Reckoning
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For a few seconds Luna Lovegood felt the shadow of fear. She had courageously faced danger before - had even fought Death Eaters - but the fierce-looking brute now before her was unpredictable and Luna buried her face in the dirt hoping she would not be seen. Her wand was tucked into her waistband and she was lying on it; she could not retrieve it in time if the beast attacked. Luna was startled by Rolf's hand on her shoulder. Looking up she was relieved to see that the savage thing had turned away.

Tucking her wand behind her ear, she slid forward on her belly again, the front of her dark checked shirt and jeans almost black with dirt but she was grateful now for the streaks of mud that helped to obscure her pale face and hair. Luna was just within reasonable wand distance when the fierce-looking beast suddenly turned, squealed loudly and charged. Almost instantly the young girl seized her wand and cried, "Stupefy!" but the animal was gone, covered by the greenery. It had not been charging her but veering to the right into the undergrowth.

Luna stood up, dirt falling off her in clouds, and feeling rather foolish. "Oh well, there goes dinner."

"Don't be too sure." said Rolf with a smile. He put one hand on Luna's arm to stop her running impulsively forward as he cautiously approached the bush where the animal had disappeared. He had his wand out in front.

"It's here." said Rolf.

The wild hog was laid out just beyond the bush, immobile, on the ground in its running posture. Its head was sideways showing it massive tusks and its visible eye was glaring up at Luna with some annoyance. She squealed almost as loudly as the pig had done and jumped up and down. "I got him!"

As Rolf cut a stout branch from a tree, Luna asked, "But tracking it was really hard, Rolf. Why didn't we use disillusionment? It would have made it a lot easier."

"We could have but you need stalking practice without resorting to magic if you want to study magical creatures, Luna. Some can see right through a disillusionment charm as well as smell you. Also we couldn't signal to each other if we were invisible."

They lashed their catch to the branch and carried it between them back to the new campsite which had been set up beside a small stream.

While Luna cleaned herself up, Ginny and Ron prepared the pig under Rolf's guidance. Ron went off to see if Hermione had a spit or a griddle in her bag. Rolf showed Ginny how to cut off and preserve a side of pork for another day. It was these day to day activities that kept their minds off what they had been through and their fears for the future.

Camp life had quickly normalized after the previous day's scare with the stampeding animals and they had made good progress through the forest. If their destination had not been so serious, Luna could imagine how enjoyable this outdoor life would be just studying the wildlife and habitat.

"Edible tubers," said Neville, throwing down a large open bag with fat twisted roots spilling out of the top. "They're not as sweet as potatoes but they have plenty of flavour and they'll be fine boiled up. Found a few nice herbs too. That's my contribution, anyway."

Hermione sighed, sat down and started scraping and cleaning them rather badly. She was eager to do her share but practical housework was not her strength. Bingley came over to show her how to do it magically.

There was a sudden shriek and Ron was stumbling backwards, almost falling over himself. "Spider!" he yelled.

"Oh Ron!" called Ginny, "Don't be such a..."

"No - in the bag! In Hermione's bag deep inside! I saw something dark moving in there! It looked at me!"

Hermione looked up puzzled for a few seconds then smiled. She went over to her bag, retrieved a tiny dark object and threw it in the stream. "All gone!" she said to Ron. She took a griddle out of the bag and handed it to him.

"How'd that thing get in the bag? You know I hate them!" protested Ron trying to use annoyance to cover his embarrassment.

"Accident I guess. I must have left it open."

"It's eyes! It had strange eyes!" muttered Ron and shuddered.

"Forget it." said Hermione as she settled down again to preparing the roots. Bingley was helping her but she also kept a watchful eye on the forest. Protective spells were in place but she was still wary. After they had feasted she wanted them to be on the move again as soon as possible.
 

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As the group of witches and wizards proceeded through the forest they had taken a course to the north of the ravaged stampede corridor with its terrible part-corpses spiked on cracked stumps. Here the forest was more friendly; not so dense as to impede progress but thick enough to give at least a sense of protection, of not being so exposed. They could not have apparated more than twenty paces ahead even if anti-apparation jinxes were not operating and being also without broomsticks they were reduced to hiking, muggle-style. There were indeed many animals not native to these parts but there was a balance and the group trusted in the young Scamander's forest lore to alert them to any natural dangers and to guide them through. Luna in particular, pestered him with questions and listened closely to his every word which Rolf never tired of imparting to her.

Foraging was easy; there was an abundance of fruits, nuts, roots, and other edible plants to supplement their rations. The roast pig lasted them two more days and now they were enjoying wild turkey. It was after this midday meal, as everyone was relaxing in the sun that dappled the forest litter with golds and yellows, that Rolf suggested they might be nearing the western edge of the woodland or at least a very large clearing. He judged there was a subtle variation in the type and spread of the foliage and from a single little seed he found lodged in a flake of bark he was hopeful at least they might eventually emerge into open grassland. Shortly after, Rolf confirmed that they were probably within an hour or so of open countryside. "I can smell it."

Bingley called a halt. She was even more cautious now. As the most adult witch and teacher of the students she felt responsible and somewhat guilty for them being at such risk the day before.

"I'm hoping Worley thinks we were all killed in that stampede - I'd like to keep it that way. I don't want us all to come stumbling out into open countryside. Rolf, why don't you scout ahead? - that's your speciality. Also Harry's really good with the disillusionment charm as an extra precaution." Bingley looked meaningfully at Harry.

"Oh ... yeah." said Harry. In fact, he had rarely ever used it because he had his invisibility cloak but he knew Bingley meant a disillusionment charm cast by the elder wand was likely to give near-perfect invisibility.

"I'd like to go too." said Luna, "I want to learn all I can about stealth if I'm to become a naturalist."

"We're not hunting pig today, Luna." cautioned Rolf.

"I know - that's why I want to keep an eye on you, Rolf." smiled Luna.

There was still an entire afternoon and early evening of daylight remaining but Rolf and Luna set off within the hour. Harry watched them leave on their scouting expedition with mixed feelings. Or rather he watched the forest litter scattering about their footsteps as the invisible couple headed west through the trees. He turned to the others. "I hope they'll be safe." But it was not them that he needed to worry about.

Luna knew the reason why Harry's concealment charm made them completely undetectable to the eye. Rolf assumed it was because Harry was a great wizard. In a way he was right. A wand has no magic of its own but is simply a tool to help bring out its user's magic. The elder wand did that better than any other wand ever made. Rolf told Luna they must hold hands or they would lose track of each other. Luna knew it was a white lie; she could hear the smile in his voice.

"How do you know the way, Rolf?" asked Luna.

Rolf showed Luna how to use his enchanted compass and magi-scalar to plot landmarks and work out distances. "But I also check the sun and the stars and use dead reckoning."

"Necromancy? We have to reckon with the dead to get our bearings?" asked Luna, rather alarmed.

Rolf laughed. "No - it just means estimating which way and how far we've travelled from each previous position. It's risky though because every tiny error adds up as you go along."

When they saw the edge of the forest, Rolf cautioned her to silence and they crept soundlessly forward the last few hundred yards, almost holding their breath. But as they emerged into the open they both released a long gasp of wonder at the beautiful view. Rich green grasslands sloped down before them into the huge bowl of the valley. There were a series of lakes populated by clouds of soft-coloured flamingos and other exotic water birds. Herds of deer, wild cattle, and other animals were grazing many areas of the grasslands. On all sides, the mountains, hazy blue in the distance, gave the valley its shape and outer limits. There were other thick woodland areas too - though not as large as the one they had just passed through. The northern areas of the valley were much more rocky than the south. Slightly west of north they could see what appeared to be a muggle village on the side of a small river that meandered south to west and disappeared from view at the farthest side of the valley. And there, far to the west where the north and south mountain ranges curved around to almost meet; there, just beyond the gap, was the volcano.

Having seen the volcano closer before from the other side they had a good idea of its size and this gave perspective to the whole area. The valley was much bigger than it seemed and there was still quite a long distance to travel - many days on foot. The gap itself, which seemed so narrow at first view, Rolf's magi-scalar estimated to be twenty miles across at least. Rolf began making notes, plotting a route with the most cover but he was very concerned about how they might cross the open areas. Luna also wanted to get near the village to discover if any help or information might be found there.

"That might be the very place we want to avoid." said Rolf.

"I can't see any other signs of habitation and if the Death Eaters are in the village then shouldn't we investigate it?" replied Luna.

"But we're trying to get to the volcano..." protested Rolf.

"Well firstly, we're trying to find out about the curse and if we can stop it. The villagers may be able to tell us something, don't you think?" said Luna. She kept her mind firmly on their real objective.

It was now late afternon. Rolf made a few more measurements and they then prepared to return to the others well before sunset.
 

~~~~~~~~~~~~

Rolf stopped motionless, gripped Luna's hand more tightly, and whispered "Something's not right."

"What's is it? What's wrong?" Luna whispered back, rather fearfully.

"They were almost back at the camp by the stream and there was neither sound nor smell of life at all.

"I think they're all gone." Rolf said softly.

"Everybody? They've left us here? What do we do?"

"We don't rush into anything. We wait and listen for a while."

They crouched down instinctively and waited silently for a full five minutes, listening intently. Having heard nothing at all, they cast a silencing charm upon themselves and proceeded very carefully, wands in hand ahead of them.

When they entered the campsite they saw a couple of canvas stools overturned on the ground and some other scattered objects. Rolf's long bag lay open near a tree, some of its contents spilling out. The ashes of the campfire looked cold. Rolf froze again, listening. He kept hold of Luna's hand more seriously now. He was not very happy that now he could neither see nor hear her so was afraid of them getting separated. But he could hear someone breathing. It was harsh and irregular. He wanted to leave Luna there while he investigated but there was no easy way for him to tell her silently nor was he sure she would comply. He would rather know exactly where she was anyway.

He crept quietly forward, avoiding twigs and branches on the ground and guiding Luna away from them too. As they came around a large oak they saw a figure half-sitting, half-lying on the ground, back against the trunk of the tree. It was Harry. Rolf sensed that Luna called out something silently then she ran forward breaking away from Rolf's anxious hand. Rolf stayed where he was, looking around for a trap or any other danger. Harry was just staring ahead. His head seemed to move when Luna spoke but he did not respond. Rolf sighed as Luna made herself visible and audible and resigned himself to doing the same.

"What is it, Harry? What's happened?" asked Luna.

Harry just shook his head.

"I think he's exhausted or in shock again," said Luna. "I wish Professor Bingley was here. She helped him before."

When Rolf did not answer she looked around. He was staring at a body much further away half covered by a fallen log. With some foreboding he went over for a closer look. "He's not one of ours; must be a Death Eater - but he's not dead."

From where he was he looked further to his left and there were three more bodies. He walked over to check on them. "All alive but unconscious, stunned, injured. But where is everyone else?"

"Luna, stay with Harry. Do what you can." Rolf began to check the ground for tracks. Luna tore her sleeve off and soaked it in the stream. She found a wooden cup in the mud, washed it and filled it with water. She tried to get Harry to sip a little but he did not seem to understand. She wiped his face with her wetted sleeve more to refresh him than anything else. It dripped over the ground and drew Luna's attention to something lying there amongst the forest litter. She picked it up and slipped it into her remaining sleeve.

Rolf stared in disbelief at the pattern of hundreds of footprints at one end of the clearing. "There was a dreadful fight here... dozens of them... but I can't see any other bodies."

Luna looked up but Rolf had vanished. A terrible fear gripped Luna and she wanted desperately to find out if Rolf was alright but should she leave Harry? She was not sure but she fought the impulse to run to see what had happened to Rolf and continued to wipe Harry's face with her wet sleeve. A tense minute passed by. Luna managed to get Harry to drink a little water. She heard a soft sound behind her which made her jump. Luna held her breath and kept quiet still. Harry vanished. She looked down and she was near invisible too. "It's me." It was Rolf's whisper right next to her. Luna sagged and breathed again but wondering what was happening. "Someone's coming. Keep quiet." said Rolf. Luna held her breath again.

Rolf hoped Harry would remain dumb for a while as he peered through the trees in the direction he knew several people were approaching. Very soon he knew they had entered the clearing invisibly and were prowling around talking in whispers.

"They're all gone." It was very faint but it was Bingley's voice.

"Over here!" cried Luna with great relief, cancelling the disillusionment charms on Harry and herself. "Harry needs help."

"Harry!" shrieked Ginny's voice and she became visible while still running towards him. She took over from Luna, trying to cool Harry's face with the dampened sleeve and get him to drink. Her action was more of a compulsion to do something than of any practical use but she hoped it was of some comfort to him.

"Where's Neville?" asked Hermione as the rest of the group sprang into visibility. Bingley was already walking over to Harry.

"Isn't he with you?" asked Rolf. "He's not here; I've looked around. There are four Death Eaters lying over there."

Bingley, who was already crouching over Harry, looked up and said in a very worried voice, "Neville not here you say?"

"I told you we should not have left them!" yelled Ron at Bingley, "Neville's gone, probably dead, and look what's happened to Harry!"

"It was the right thing to do at the time!" retorted Bingley. "Harry didn't want the whole group destroyed or captured and I knew he was right! We could have easily all been dead or captured right now if we had stayed."

"You abandoned Harry and Neville to fight fifty or more Death Eaters?" exploded Rolf.

"Worse than that!" yelled Ron, "He's back! You-know-who's back!"

There was an astonished silence while Bingley continued to quietly check Harry with her wand.

"What did you say?" said Rolf at last. "Tell us what happened."

Hermione spoke up, "It was an hour or so ago. We had started packing up, ready to break camp. We knew you would be back soon so we planned to slowly advance towards you and meet you on the way. Harry and Neville were going to go ahead first but they didn't get very far." Hermione broke off, clearly upset.

"It was Voldemort, clear as day. Him and Worley and hundreds of Death Eaters..." said Ron, then muttered, "well dozens anyway."

Ginny took over the explanation. "They apparated ahead of Harry and Neville. Harry yelled back at us to run - just go. Voldemort must have temporarily suspended the anti-apparation jinxes. Professor Bingley grabbed us all together and apparated us all back down the trail a few miles."

"It was not Voldemort." said Luna, matter-of-factly.

"Yes it was!" Ron yelled angrily at her. "You weren't here so how do you know!"

"Because Harry said he's dead and I believe him." declared Luna, not put off by Ron's attitude. She was standing there, dirt streaked through her hair and clothing with one sleeve missing and knew she probably looked and sounded foolish to everyone else. She was used to people not believing her but she almost sighed to think they did not believe Harry.

Bingley had been applying a healing spell to help Harry recover. She looked up again, "Sorry Luna but Voldemort... he was real - exactly as he always was." She turned back to Harry who was starting to look around.

"What happened here, Harry? Can you remember what happened to Neville?" asked Bingley.

"Give him more time..." began Ginny.

"The longer we wait the worse..." said Ron. He tailed off. He was anxious to go after Neville.

"Harry, can you understand me?" asked Bingley.

"What's wrong with him anyway?" asked Ron, "Why's he keep going funny like this?"

Harry's eyes started to focus a little. Bingley continued with her healing incantation for half a minute then said to Ginny, "I need to tell them..."

"No!" exclaimed Ginny.

"Tell us what?" demanded Hermione.

"Harry has always been potentially a very great wizard. All the difficulties, hardships, and experiences he has gone through have advanced him further. Using magic - in real, severe situations I mean - is rather like physical excercise; the more you go through the fitter you become. In my muggle studies I've read that many sportsmen have to adjust if they grow too fast. Harry has developed much faster than any normal wizard and it's exhausting him magically. He'll be alright in time... He just needs time to adapt." Bingley directed this last sentence at Ginny who looked relieved that Bingley had not mentioned the elder wand. She wondered if in fact, what Bingley had said might actually be true - and made worse by the wand's power draining more magic out of Harry until he got used to it.

"I'll be alright, Ginny." It was Harry. "I'm just a bit weak but I'll be OK."

"Can you tell us what happened?" persisted Bingley.

"There were a lot of Death Eaters but I felt I could shield myself and keep them occupied while you escaped. Neville was trying to fight both Voldemort and Worley. You know how Neville fights. He'd take on a thousand dark lords if he had to." Harry paused. "He hurt Worley and nearly put her down too but Voldemort cursed him. He cursed Neville - I don't know what with. Neville was thrown back badly. He never got up again but I think he was alive because Worley grabbed him and disapparated. They wouldn't take him if he was dead would they?"

Harry continued as everyone listened intently, "Voldemort spoke to me and laughed. I was fighting off dozens of Death Eaters and he just stood there taunting me. But they weren't real! Most of them anyway. The Death Eaters I mean. I soon realized most of them were pretending but not actually casting spells. They were not real. Some sort of illusion spell - they were conjured up by Voldemort I think and disappeared when he disapparated."

"What did he say, Harry?" asked Ginny.

"He... Voldemort said, 'Harry Potter! Did you really think a silly boy like you could so easily get rid of the greatest Dark Lord there has ever been?' I'm sorry, Luna."

Harry turned to Luna and spoke as if he had let her down, "He was as real as real. An illusion cannot cast a curse. It was Voldemort. He's still alive somehow."

Luna crouched down again to Harry. She grasped his shoulders and spoke very firmly, "Look at me, Harry! Look at me and listen. It ... was ... NOT ... Voldemort. You KNOW Voldemort is dead don't you? I mean you KNOW. Think Harry. I don't know what it was you saw but it could not have been Voldemort."

Harry looked bewildered. Bingley spoke, "Luna! Please... You're not helping him."

Harry was shaking his head.

"Harry, even if you cannot believe in yourself anymore - I still do. I still believe in you." said Luna tearfully then, turning to Bingley, she said, "Perhaps polyjuice potion or..."

"It can't be polyjuice can it? You need the original person as well." said Bingley. There was exasperation in her voice. "Please Luna, let it go."

Rolf led Luna away on their own for a while. Hermione went to get the kettle to make a pot of tea. She knew normal activity has a way of counteracting the shock of the unusual. I'd better make it a big pot, she thought to herself grimly. Ron stood around not knowing what to do. Ginny stayed with Harry, holding his hand tightly.

"Ron - can you set up protection spells. We shouldn't stay in this spot too long but we may have to," said Bingley, still crouched at Harry's side and look anxiously at the fading light.

Ron was glad of something to do but went over and asked Hermione to perform the spells instead while he took over making the tea. As he relit the campfire with his wand and the bright yellow flames sprang up they all realized how dark it was getting.

"How did they find us, Professor?" called Hermione as she cast her wards and concealment charms around the camp perimeters.

Bingley said nothing for a while then suddenly her eyes widened and she went over to examine Rolf's long bag. She began to move her wand carefully over it. Finally, she said, "Tracer hex! I should have tested before."

She was about to counter-curse it then changed her mind. "Hermione, can you get all the stuff out of Rolf's bag into yours? I'd like to leave this long bag so Worley doesn't know we're moving."

She helped Hermione transfer everything and then Hermione suggested an impervious charm to make the bag float. They also used a reducio charm to shrink the empty bag to the size of a hat and sent it with its tracer hex adrift down the stream. Bingley wished it was flowing back the way they came but it was heading south west. At least they could keep well north of it when they resumed their journey she thought. It should draw the Death Eaters away from them for a time. Rolf watched with mixed feelings. It seemed petty to remind them how long that bag had been used by his family.

Suddenly Bingley leapt to her feet. "Rolf! you said there were some Death Eaters here? Were they alive? Where are they?"

"Yes, over here." Rolf left Luna and took Bingley over to where he had seen the bodies. They were gone.

"Damn! Why didn't I think sooner!" cursed Bingley. "They've been disapparated while we've been talking. We might have got them to tell us something... Tell us where they are located... Where and how this world curse is set up. They were all definitely still alive then?" She was testing apparation as she spoke but it was blocked again.

Rolf nodded. "Stunned I'd say. A couple looked injured as well but they were definitely all alive."

Bingley looked over at Harry with a new respect. Ginny was trying to get him to drink a cup of tea but he was resting with his eyes closed. Luna went back to them. She showed Ginny what was up her sleeve and passed it over covertly to her.

"He must have dropped it. I didn't want anyone else to find it." whispered Luna. Ginny's attention had been entirely on Harry. Now she looked up at Luna as if only just properly noticing her. Luna's dirty cheeks were still black-streaked where she had been weeping. She looked a sorry sight with her ripped sleeve. Ginny grabbed her and put her arms around her tightly.

"Luna, you're the best of friends" said Ginny very softly. After a while she asked, "Do you really think Voldemort... that he really is dead?"

"Certain. I know he is." whispered Luna.

"How can you be so sure?"

"Because Harry knew for certain he was dead. He knew he was. He told us so in the Great Hall no matter how confused he is now. And no magic can bring anyone back from the dead."

"Then I believe it too," whispered Ginny. "Perhaps it was a confundus charm."

"I'm not asleep." said Harry, opening his eyes. "It was not a confusing spell. I wasn't confused at the time. I was fighting loads of Death Eaters. Anyway, you all saw him. But now I'm not so sure what we saw. It makes no sense. You're right Luna. He was absolutely dead and magic cannot bring anyone back to life. But there is no explanation."

"Yes there is - something we haven't thought of yet," said Luna.

"What then?" asked Harry.

"When I think of it I'll let you know," answered Luna. She turned to listen to Hermione who was having a loud exchange with Professor Bingley.

"I don't think there are many Death Eaters left at all." said Hermione, "We may even outnumber them."

"We cannot relax - there could be hundreds of them." protested Bingley.

"Why did they come back for those few then - those unconscious ones? Why risk it knowing we might be here? And why not attack us again? Why did they use stealth to slip in and take them away?" said Hermione.

Ron spoke up, "Hermione's right. Sounds like they're scared to me. Why make a fake army of Death Eaters if they had a real army? Why did they leave Harry anyway? Why didn't Voldemort finish him off? Why'd he just stand there laughing at Harry?"

"I think they just came to take someone - probably anyone, just one person. It just happened to be Neville. Then they were gone," said Hermione. "And it must be important or why take the risk?"

"Rolf, did you find the edge of the forest? See any Death Eaters?" asked Bingley.

"It's just over an hour away. The valley is big and the only indication of people at all is a muggle village. We could see the volcano but it will take days to cross the valley and I'm worried about how we're going to get across some of the big open grassland areas. We'll be completely exposed. It really is a natural paradise though; there is an abundance of everything. There could be ten thousand Death Eaters in that valley and you'd never see them." said Rolf.

"Maybe the muggles know something. I think we should try to reach the village if possible." said Bingley.

"Yes, Luna said the same. We can reach the village under cover of trees and it's very rocky around there. Travelling across the valley won't be so easy after that though. We may need to use disillusionment charms or we'll be open to attack. They'll know exactly where we are if they see us out in the open but we won't know where they are. They may even have laid traps." said Rolf.

"Disillusionment can get very disorganized with all of us not being able to see each other over several days - nor is it infallible - but we'll worry about that when we get to it," said Bingley. "We may have no choice."

It was a difficult evening and none of them slept well again that night. Ron and Hermione were convinced there was only a remnant of the Death Eaters left but Voldemort was to be feared; others thought there might be many Death Eaters but the appearance of Voldemort had only been a trick. Luna was very concerned for Neville in the hands of ruthless dark wizards and what Worley might want him for. Bingley was having doubts about her own leadership. She was a teacher while the others were Hogwarts students and she was leading them to face an unknown dark enemy of unknown strength. Ginny was hopeful that things could only get better after all they had been through. She was completely wrong.







Chapter 16: The Visitor
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Tired and sleepy as they all were after a restless and worried night, there were still exclamations of wonder from everyone as they had their first view down into the Tiantang Valley. It was daybreak and the great valley basin was starting to fill with the golden light of the rising sun. Early mists that gently softened the placid surfaces of pools and lakes were slowly being teased away by the new warmth. The sun was ascending above the trees behind the round-eyed watchers and the yielding darkness gave an uplifting sense of hope and expectancy.

The travellers had deliberately made an advanced start and Rolf had soon led them to reach the forest's edge between large outcrops of rock smothered in foliage. Crouching low and keeping well back in the treeline, they were well concealed in shadow as they gazed at the vista, each lost in their own thoughts and the sweet birdsong around them.

Luna and Rolf had seen almost this same view before but were just as exhilarated as the rest of the group. For a while they both were able to forget the seriousness of their endeavour and share this joy in nature's ultimate paradise. Their memory of its overflowing abundance of life, provision, and beauty, had not exaggerated itself to them.

Rolf loved the great outdoors more than most and yet it was he who broke the dreamy atmosphere with a soft gasp that caused everyone to turn to him. He was looking around to their right and Bingley feared the worst.

"Did you hear something, Rolf?" Only her whisper was needed in the quietness of the new morning.

"Faintly but..." Rolf paused, then explained. "I think something, or someone, has been aware of us for a day or so. I sensed it before but thought it no more than..."

Bingley interrupted with annoyance and surprise in her voice, "You didn't think it important to tell us we were being followed? I have detected nothing!"

"Nor would you. You have to understand, as a woodsman I am attuned to sensations that can scarcely be described. I often sense nearby creatures and they detect me - even show curiosity for a while - sometimes a long while - then go on their way. It is normal."

Rolf hestitated again, then continued, "I have been on expeditions from my early childhood. When my father was killed, my mother did not want me to ever go into the wilds again but my grandfather persuaded her that nobody should live in fear. He helped me magically develop and enhance the animal instincts that my father never had. I was an eager pupil - more so because of the anxiety over my father's death."

Rolf looked around at the concerned faces. "What I have sensed over the last few days has been no more than the faintest of impressions. I hear the wind whisper; I feel the ground murmur; I sense the trees yearning towards the light. A brown bear walked within one mile beside us for an hour. A curious squirrel followed for a while. Several birds have watched while fluttering many trees ahead of us. It is normal and natural and I would not trouble you with it. But now I suspect that one of the sensations I have detected may be the same creature reappearing at different times over the last two days, perhaps longer."

"It's Worley sent it!" said Ron, drawing his wand. "We know she trained Fobey maybe they're are others she's trained. It can be anything! A tiger! We had a tiger in class once!"

"A faux-boggart." explained Luna to Rolf who looked more thoughtful before answering.

"I am not certain but I feel this creature is more intelligent than a faux-boggart. Sometimes it was behind us; sometimes to one side or ahead; mostly not there at all. Just now I had the strange impression it was looking at the same view we were and..."

"And what, Rolf?" asked Luna gently.

"I think it was... I think it had the same sense of wonder that we did. It paused. It turned. It gasped. Then it was gone."

"It was that near?" exploded Bingley, but stifling her voice to a loud hoarse whisper.

"In this quietness I can sense a muffled cry nearly a quarter of a mile away. I heard the bear further than that." said Rolf. All my faculties are charmed to be more acute when needed.

"You call this quiet?" said Hermione. "Listen to the birds singing!"

"The dawn chorus rests on top of the silence below." said Rolf cryptically. "Can you not hear that stillness too?"

"As if we haven't got enough troubles. Now we're being followed by some crazy monster." complained Ron.

Bingley sighed. "I don't see how we can be any more watchful than we already are. Rolf, please let me know anything further you hear of this creature. Meanwhile..." She was eyeing the muggle village across to the north of the valley, "Lead on. Do you think we can reach that village before nightfall?"

"Yes, we can make good progress with plenty of cover along the treeline and look at all those rocky areas over that side." He pointed to the northern edge of the valley against which the village nestled. There the stony slopes were steeper and more craggy.

They continued the journey northward along the forest edge and very soon Rolf stopped to examine the cracked slab of grey rock over which they were about to walk. Like many others it jutted out from the grassy hillside and seemed kept bare by the occasional breezes. But looking closely, Luna could see a fine dusting of various particles, seeds, pollens, and tiny fragments of dried leaf litter. On one side these had been twisted around as if by something turning upon them. Rolf began shaking his head in puzzlement and staring high up at the sky and the leaves of a stout tree thrusting next to the stone.

"I think this is where the creature was. I can tell little except I think it was very small and... I think it can fly or climb. There is only a faint trace here and nothing leading to or from this place - no tracks in the forest soil."

Ron, who still had his wand out, spent the next hour of the journey not only looking behind him but also peering up into the branches of the trees and the sky. "Spiders can climb trees." he was heard to mutter to himself now and again.

The group did not stop for a midday meal but continued in order to make sure they reached their destination well before dark. They made better time than expected and by mid-afternoon they were close above a track that seemed to lead into the eastern edge of the village and Rolf called a break. "I recommend you take a short rest and have something to eat while I go ahead fifteen minutes to see who's about. They won't see me."

Luna was visibly about to say something but Rolf raised his hand and shook his head. "I'll go alone, Luna."

The remaining team gnawed on cold meat and fruits and talked in subdued tones while they waited for Rolf's return. Luna packed up a few things in a cloth ready for Rolf to eat in case he missed out. Ginny passed around some chocolate and they drank from their water flagons. They did not have long to wait.

When Rolf returned he looked grim. "There is an easy way down to the track and I could see into the village but nobody is about. It's very strange at this time of day. It's too quiet, except..."

"What is it Rolf?" asked Bingley.

"I think... I think whatever has been watching us... I think it might be lying in wait for us in the village."

"How..."

"I can't define it. I just feel uneasy about what is ahead. I had the same experience with a lion once in Africa. I never heard it nor smelt it but I sensed it so I approached from a new direction and sure enough found it waiting in the undergrowth. But there is no other easy way into the village from this side, I'm afraid. I might climb around the rocks on the hillside above it but that would take the rest of the day. Can we spare that time?"

"I'm for finding Neville as soon as we can," said Ron and there were general nods of assent.

There was a gloomy silence during which several of them as well as Ron were now nervously fiddling with their wands.

Harry spoke, "Oh come on! We are seven witches and wizards, armed and dangerous! It's just the fear of the unknown but at the end of the day it's only one creature against all of us. Why hasn't it attacked already? Because it's weak and wants to surprise us. It thinks we're not expecting it. Well we are. If you like, Rolf and I will go in first and bring it back on a lead."

"No way!" said Ron. "That's what it wants you to do. While you're gone, we all relax and it takes us by surprise. No, we all go together!"

Harry smiled and everyone else except Ron picked up on the joke too. Luna pressed her food pack onto Rolf and they all departed as stealthily as they might down to the village. At the side of the dirt trail leading into the start of the buildings they crouched or lay down in the thick foliage and peered ahead. There was no further cover between them and the rough dwellings.

"This is as far as I came before," whispered Rolf, "and still no sign of life." He craned his neck straining to see as far as possible through the swirls of dust lifted by the warm afternoon breeze. The houses were nearly all mud bricks around their bases but had walls that were mostly timber posts or boards. The roofs were sloping thin slats of wood or bamboo, some part-covered in straw; others bare. There were simple, pegged doors but the windows were unglazed narrow gaps with thin wooden shutters.

They waited a while but all was very quiet. Not even a dog barked. Apart from the occasional buzzing of a fly or a far off bird calling in the forest there was silence.

Suddenly Rolf said quietly. "It's there."

"Can you see..." whispered Bingley.

"No. Nothing. But it's there. I just know it." Rolf replied hoarsely.

There was unspoken tension for a time as everyone strained to hear the slightest sound or to glimpse some movement. The buildings were just a few hundred paces ahead and a large creature could come bounding out or fly across to them in seconds. All eyes were focused on the trail where it entered the village.

Then for a few moments the hairs on the back of Rolf's head stood on end. Rolf was definitely not used to hearing anything get up close behind him in the forest. He rolled quickly over onto his back with his wand already pointing and everyone else turned a moment later as they heard a soft voice right next to them, "Dead people..."

Rolf was completely bewildered and he was lost for words. "How did... Why are... How..."

"Dead people. All dead people. There is no one now. Please not to go Master Rolf, Miss Luna." It was Feya, the house-elf. Her voice was always pleasant but now it was also strained and full of fear and so was her face.

"Feya! How did you get here?" asked Luna, rising up and going to crouch beside the little elf. "Is it you that has been following us?"

"Feya wishes only to..." She was struggling with suppressed emotions, gazing inwardly at some unseen horror.

Seeing Feya's deep distress and remembering her first words, Luna put her arms around the little creature. "It's alright to cry now, Feya; Rolf won't mind."

The little house-elf wept softly on Luna's shoulder. Everyone else looked on either alarmed or baffled or both, waiting for some explanation. Feya looked up.

"People all dead. All killed." she said sadly.

"Everyone in the village? They've all been killed?" asked Bingley, glancing back at the deserted dirt street through the village.

"Do you think Worley could have had them killed so they can't tell us anything?" Hermione asked Bingley with a shudder. The idea that they themselves might have triggered this tragedy filled her with dread.

Feya was shaking her head. "Long time. Bones. Just bones."

Harry looked thoughtful. "Voldemort. He did it. When he set up this place years ago. When he seized this valley for himself and his Death Eaters." There was no disagreement from anyone else and they stared towards the village wondering what to do.

"Why did you come, Feya?" asked Luna, quietly, still holding the little elf in her arms.

"Mrs. Preed made Feya promise to go to Master Rolf if Master was in trouble," said Feya but she added in a whisper so only Luna could hear, "and Seraphina says Feya's help is needed."

"Mother doesn't usually..." began Rolf.

"Mrs. Preed always worries about Master Rolf." corrected Feya. She rubbed away her tears with the back of her little fists and went over to Rolf who had sat down on a big stone to think.

Bingley spoke. "Everyone stay here. Rolf, will you take charge please? I'm going to see for myself ... Harry?" she looked at Harry but did not insist.

"Yes. I'll come with you." said Harry, looking around as if hoping someone would stop him. Nobody did and nobody else volunteered although they watched with sympathy as the pair walked cautiously into the village.

There was little to see in the first part of the main street. It was the only proper street with rough flat stone slabs set in the dirt. The few side turnings were mere dust trails. Harry and Bingley were both chanting "Homenum Revelio" like a dirge but not a single living person was there to be revealed.

Bingley peered through some forced, blasted, shutters and saw a small skeletal body crouched facing a corner and still embracing the remains of an even smaller child. The torn remnants of their clothing suggested it was probably a boy and his little sister trying to hide from their killers. Bingley said nothing to Harry.

As they progressed they saw damaged buildings and loose bone fragments here and there among the natural litter and debris on the ground. Bingley knew that animals would have dispersed these but again she did not speak aloud. She was not sure Harry was even noticing what these occasional human remains really were. But he could not fail to notice the heaps of human skulls and bones at the far end of the village and he stared disbelievingly. These pitiful heaps of broken decay had once been living people. One still clung to a cracked bucket as if she had died while going to fetch water. The worn leather thong of a single sandal was still caught in a torn, faded dress where its wearer had fallen. Harry's numbed mind started wondering pointlessly if the strap had caused her to trip or if it had only got caught up after she was put down by a dark curse.

Only Bingley spoke. "Looks like the Death Eaters came in the same way we did and swept all before them. Some villagers hid but most ran this way - straight into more dark wizards waiting for them." She had seen before what was left of muggle families after they had been attacked by Voldemort's followers but not on this scale.

Beyond the west side of the village were disused fields, some still with crops now run wild, and Bingley called a halt. "We've seen enough. I'll inform Kingsley. When the aurors get here they will see it's not just talk anymore. Here is all the proof they need of something serious taking place."

Bingley cast her owl patronus again and sent her dismal message on its way to the Minister then they turned back. Harry had been silent and remained so for part of the journey back before he voiced his thoughts.

"This must have happened while I was at school at Hogwarts fretting about potion ingredients or whether I could get to Hogsmeade at the weekend or even whether to have another helping of porridge." he said bitterly.

"Don't dwell too much on it Harry. You'll go crazy worrying about things like this. I've been haunted by seeing more than one family destroyed by Death Eaters but I've learned to put it out of my mind. We have to." Professor Anthea Bingley had a family of her own and instinctively felt motherly towards Harry. She was shorter than him and looked up at the young man to judge his reaction with a reassuring but grim smile on her round, pleasant face.

They both had troubled faces when they met up with the others again but Harry had started to look really sick. Nobody asked them anything for a while - perhaps because it would be difficult to frame a question that was not inappropriate.

"I'm sorry you had to see that, Harry." said Luna. "Is there anything we can say to help?"

"No. Nothing. I'll get over it." Harry said abruptly and went to sit down on one of the many big stones that were scattered around.

Rolf changed the topic of conversation to take their minds off the horror most of them were imagining. "While you were away we were exchanging ideas about traversing the open areas. It's possible that there might not be many Death Eaters so we could simply cross anyway - fight if we have to.

"Another suggestion was to command some horses or other wild animals but not everybody is comfortable with that, never having ridden. They would also be vulnerable to an air attack if the Death Eaters use broomsticks. I'm not sure if there are thestrals here or if we could draw them to us but the same applies - anyone who is doing all they can just to cling on to a mount is a helpless target for an experienced flying Death Eater.

"We could try stealth - use disillusionment charms - but it is notoriously difficult to keep a group together and those charms can be detected and even broken. Then we would really be stranded in the open. If anyone got separated it would be very difficult for them to find the rest of us again.

"We might try during darkness but we are already short of sleep so definitely not fit to start tonight.

"I don't like any of the options." Rolf concluded.

After a half a minute of head-scratching silence, Bingley said, "Harry? Any ideas?" She was trying to force Harry to stop pondering what he had seen.

"What?" said Harry, raising his head for the first time.

"Harry, do you want to catch those who did that to those poor muggles?" Bingley said.

"Of course I do!" snapped Harry. "Sorry, I wasn't listening. What do we need?"

"We need to find a way safely across the open grasslands to reach the volcano."

"Oh right... If we had broomsticks... Yeah right - we haven't... Just go for it I suppose. Take a chance. Just walk."

"And we all end up attacked by five hundred flying Death Eaters! Is that what you want? Wake up Harry!" said Bingley. She deliberately wanted to annoy Harry which she felt would be preferable to his being depressed.

"OK, OK. Let me think..." Harry held his head but his thoughts were just blank.

"I still say there are not that many of them at all!" exclaimed Hermione. "It's obvious why won't anybody listen!"

"Me too," said Ron. "That's what I think too."

Ginny turned on them both rather loudly. "And you're willing to risk everyone's life and not only that but we may be the only ones in time to stop the world curse. No pressure, Ron but it's stupid to just assume..."

"Yes but meanwhile, what about Neville? While we're sitting around here he might be dead by now!" shouted Ron.

Luna had taken Feya and moved away to sit down on a mossy log a little further apart to think away from the commotion but she could not escape the sounds of growing irritation caused by the frustrating problem and lack of sleep.

"Ron..." began Hermione.

"You and Ron might be right - we may have no choice but just to walk out there." said Bingley.

"Suppose we split up?" suggested Rolf. "One group of three or four sets out. We have to keep in touch - a patronus will do it. If the first group fails then at least someone survives to try something else."

"That's sickening! How can you even think that!" choked Hermione.

"But think what's at stake!" exploded Rolf. "I don't like it any more than you do! The law of the jungle is a dreadful, dreadful thing. I'm willing to go out on my own if necessary so the rest of you can tell if it's safe."

"I know how we can tell if Neville is still alive."

Everyone stopped talking and turned around to look at Luna. She came over to Rolf and there was a whispered exchange for a while. Rolf went off to keep watch with Feya feeling a little rejected.

Luna spoke seriously. "I don't know how to cross the valley safely but I do know how we can tell if Neville is alive and prove to you all that Voldemort is dead and calm things down too so we can think more clearly."

Everyone was already calming down a little out of curiosity to hear what Luna had to say but it was Ron who spoke.

"Merlin's hat! Of course! You mean the mind realm! Why didn't we think of this before?" For the first time in a while, Ron had a grin on his tired-looking face.

"Can we tell where they are?" asked Bingley. She had had only the one brief session in the mind realm so needed reminding.

"No - there are no 'places' in the mind realm. There's no space at all," replied Ron, "but at least we can tell if Nev's OK."

Harry stood up suddenly and said, "We already know Voldemort is dead don't we? I should have remembered that - from that first session we did at the start of this term. Sorry again, Luna. I was an idiot to even think he might still be alive."

"You were exhausted and muddled up - not thinking straight." said Luna.

"No Harry - only you saw he was gone - but none of us were thinking of him at all that session - or any session." said Ron. "Anyway, he might have been restored since then! Remember the Deathly Hallows? There was a resurrection stone. Suppose it were real?"

"What!" said Harry, rather weakly. He had never told anyone that he had possessed it for a time then dropped it in the Forbidden Forest.

"Don't be ridiculous, Ron." said Hermione. "It's a myth."

"Yeah - like the elder wand? I was joking but even so, who's to say? Anyway, I think we all now agree you-know-who's probably dead right! But if we have a session now we can prove that for us all just by looking for him." Ron looked at Luna. "Great idea, Luna! We can check on Neville and relax everybody at the same time."

Luna smiled weakly. Like everyone else she had hardly slept for two days and the afternoon was drawing on to evening.

"Luna, how do you feel about going in without Neville? You've never gone into the mental realm without your bond." asked Ginny.

"Oh I have a few times. It's not anything like so good but I can handle it." said Luna.

"That's alright, then..." said Hermione.

"Wait a minute. Luna, I don't recall you ever going in without Neville." said Ron.

"Oh.. well, only... once or twice." Luna seemed unusually evasive.

"When?" persisted Ron. He sounded suspicious of Luna.

Luna hesitated then finally spoke.

"It was last year when you were all away..." she said guiltily.

"What? You went in alone!" exploded Ron. "You mean with Neville and Ginny?"

"No. On my own. You don't understand. I was..."

"What have I told you! We never go in with less than three!" shouted Ron.

"Ron, remember, we did. You and I..." said Hermione, trying to calm him down.

"That was different. I've progressed more. I... Anyway, there were two of us."

"Yes but you said you'd go in alone if you had to!" said Harry loudly.

"That's not the point. Luna, what on earth were you thinking of!" Ron shouted.

Rolf came quickly striding over and stepped in between Ron and Luna. "Ron, I don't know what this is about but stop it! Don't you shout at Luna - not while I'm around. I won't stand for it." He looked threateningly at Ron.

"Cool it guys!" said Ginny, moving over to Luna.

Ron half side-stepped Rolf and said more quietly to Luna over Rolf's shoulder, "Why'd you do it Luna?"

"You don't see... I was frightened... and..." There was a pause. "...lonely." Luna started to look very sad at the memories. She sat down on a long stone slab. Ginny sat with her.

"We were out being hunted and risking our necks looking for bloody horcruxes! What had you got to..." Ron stopped as Rolf glared at him and took a step forward, bunching a fist. Hermione digged Ron in the ribs.

"If it wasn't for Ginny here I'd have gone mad." said Luna. Ginny took her hand.

Luna continued. "You don't understand. When I was little I was alone. I wasn't really lonely - I was alone but not lonely. Even when mum died... that was different. I didn't learn to be lonely until I... until I made friends... and then lost them."

Luna looked very forlorn and Ginny put her arm around her shoulder.

"You never lost your friends, Luna." Harry said kindly. "Even when we were away... Even Ron. Don't take any notice of Ron being an arse. He's just annoyed because he knows the risks better than any of us. We knew you'd been up in the old classroom but we thought you just went there to be on your own for a while."

"It's just..." Ron tailed off, feeling a little sorry for Luna but not knowing what to say.

Luna was determined not to cry but she was choked with emotion and struggled to speak between gasps, "I know... It was just so... So calm and peaceful in the..." Luna looked sideways at Rolf. "...there - away from the cruelty of the Carrows. They were horrible... to the little ones... And... And then I could see you all again. I had no idea where you were but in that... you were as close as ever. It helped me... not be so lonely for a few days. I think... why I was drawn to Neville... He's sweet but... suppose he needed someone too."

Rolf looked at Luna with a fleeting look of relief.

Bingley took control. "I think we must just do it. Right now. Sorry Rolf. You've no idea what we're talking about but that's how it has to be. Would you mind putting up protection and silencing charms then keep watch with Feya? Ron, would you take charge?"

Bingley conjured up a campfire in the middle of the stones, more for its cheery atmosphere than anything and they all sat round it. Rolf took a last look at Luna who nodded at him sorrowfully and he went back to Feya to watch the sun setting over the far end of the valley.

Ron began the routine and eventually cast the enchantments that led them into the mentasphere. Rolf glanced back now and again. They just seemed to be sitting there quietly together. He shook his head and looked at Feya with a worried look.

"Deep magic, Master Rolf. Miss Luna is happy now with friends so Feya is happy too." Feya smiled.

Rolf resigned himself to not knowing everything about Luna Lovegood but so long as she was safe and happy then he should wish for nothing more. Yet he did. He wished he could be more a part of Luna's life. The more he thought about it the more he wished he could be every part of her life. He remembered how she had not only asked him for a date but 'more dates'. He smiled. The thought was comforting.

"Master likes Miss Luna?" said Feya.

"Very much." smiled Rolf forgetting he was talking to his house-elf.

What was it Luna had said? Rolf thought back. If you don't like the first date then you don't do any more so you only waste the one date. The thought of any date with Luna being a waste seemed ridiculous to Rolf.

Rolf blinked. His thoughts were playing tricks inside his head. He glanced back to the group who were still sitting motionless and silent together. What on earth are they doing? he wondered. He could see the side of Luna's face, so calm now, so poised with the firelight flickering gently over it. It evoked in Rolf such feelings of tenderness that he had to shake himself and stand up. Feya stood up with him. Rolf sat down again. So did Feya. Then he remember what he was supposed to be doing.

"Are you keeping watch, Feya?" asked Rolf.

"Yes, Master Rolf. Feya is watching very carefully." replied the little house-elf, looking at him with a smile.

After the brief session there was elation. They had all clearly seen that Neville was alive and mentally intact at least. Everyone felt refreshed and all conflicts were forgotten as the twilight deepened and stars appeared overhead.

Bingley smiled. "So, if I could give house points for this I'd give fifty points to Ravenclaw for being right about Voldemort being dead and, let's see ten points each off Gryffindor for being wrong."

"Well, for someone who's dead, You-know-who certainly causes a lot of bother." grumbled Ginny.

"The evil that men do lives after them; The good is oft interred with their bones." said Hermione.

"What's that mean, Hermione?" asked Ron.

"It's by a great muggle poet. It means Voldemort's dark will still lingers on in others and in this world curse." said Hermione.

"That's cheerful!" laughed Harry. "How about this verse instead?

"There was a dark wizard it's said,Had worms crawling out of his head.When they poked it about,The eyeballs popped out,So he's definitely, definitely, dead."

As laughter started to fill the night air, Rolf and Feya rejoined them and they chatted and joked for an hour while sipping hot chocolate and resolved to leave the decision about travel until the morning. When they turned in for the night, the girls went into the Weasley tent to sleep but the valley night was warm enough for the boys to sleep comfortably outside. Bingley took first watch.

As they were all dozing off, Harry suddenly started chuckling to himself.

"Put a sock in it Harry!" moaned Ginny from the tent - but she was secretly pleased to hear Harry was happy again.

Just before he drifted off into a deep, contented sleep, Harry's last thought to himself was, Tomorrow I'll tell them how we cross the valley.






Chapter 17: One Giant Leap
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Everyone slept really well that night and yet most of them still got up with the sun. As ever, it seemed to be blue skies with just a few fluffy white cumulus clouds to decorate the perfect valley's ceiling. Harry was half-woken shortly after by the smell of bacon and eggs frying in the skillet and he sleepily joined the others at breakfast. Bingley had made a smokeless fire but it had cheery flames that crackled and popped nicely to the tune of sizzling and simmering of the food being prepared by the ever-enthusiastic Feya. They had camped back just inside the treeline and had smothered the location in protective charms so they all felt reasonably safe and there was a relaxed atmosphere. Through the trees, Harry could see Rolf and Luna were already surveying the far end of the valley.

"I think I have the answer - how we can cross the valley." croaked Harry in a just-woken-up voice and looking around rather blurry-eyed.

Nobody took much notice. Ron muttered something.

Harry stared around perplexed. "No seriously. I figured out how we can get across quickly and safely."

Ron spoke, "Join the queue, Harry. About four of us already did. Let me guess. Erm... Anything to do with anti-apparation hexes not having any effect on elf-magic?" Feya, who was busy scooping rashers onto fried bread looked up and smiled.

"Oh." said Harry, somewhat deflated.

"Have some breakfast, Harry." spluttered Ron as he washed down a mouthful of toast with his hot morning tea. Feya quickly filled up a big plate with crispy bacon and eggs and sweet baked taro roots, crammed half a dozen fried bread soldiers on one edge and poured out another big mug of tea.

Harry managed to squeeze in his thumb to grasp the heaped dish and carried it and its delicious aroma over to where Luna and Rolf were standing talking softly to one another.

Harry said quietly so the others would not hear. "Hey - you remember about those hexes and curses Mrs. Preed reported, don't you?" He took his first gulp of tea of the day.

"Yes, we definitely don't want to apparate directly into that gap. Instead we're looking at that big shelf on the northern hillside overlooking the gap. If we could get to there we might be able to assess the risks," said Rolf. "There looks to be good foliage and rock cover so we should get a good view all around without being seen."

"It also gives Feya something definite to aim at." added Luna.

Harry wiggled his glasses back more firmly and strained to see into the far distance. All he could see where Rolf was pointing seemed to be a long, nearly-vertical line shimmering and flickering down the rock face and cut in half by a thin horizontal line of yellow and green. "Something to aim at?" he muttered, wishing they still had Worley's omnioculars.

"That yellowy green is the ledge. That vertical glinting line must be a stream pouring down the cliff - It may be a waterfall pouring down onto the ledge at one place then flowing off further along. That's what I think it is," said Rolf.

"You really think Feya can aim at that thin green line?" asked Harry, sceptically.

"She's sure," said Luna. "I think she going to aim high above then as we fall she'll apparate down the last bit. Just so there is less chance of apparating inside the rock itself and getting squashed like a fat mud plimpie. That's how all those ancient fossils got there you know - before dinosaurs learnt how to apparate properly through the air and transfigured themselves into birds."

Harry gulped nervously. Side-Along apparation could be uncomfortable anyway; to be awaiting a plunge into the unknown at the end or even being inside solid rock was worrying. "Aren't you scared?" he asked Luna.

"A little. Don't worry - once Feya has been there it won't be so bad for everyone on the next trip because she will know exactly where to apparate." smiled Luna.

Rolf continued, "Anthea - that is, Professor Bingley - will go first with Feya and either Luna or yourself Harry. I think one of us three should go on the first trip as we are the only ones who know for sure there are hexes set up between the gap and the volcano. I'd hate anyone else to blunder into them just because we cannot tell them we already know." Harry stopped eating and his face went a little pale at the thought of being first to be aimed at that smudgy line in the distance.

Rolf continued, "Anyway, I have no doubt Professor Bingley will detect the curses. She prefers that one adult stays behind so that's me. Personally I think all you lot are young adults anyway and more experienced at dealing with Death Eaters than I am but still..."

"Definitely Professor Bingley should go. She'd be best at dealing with the hexes." Harry looked at Luna hoping she would volunteer to be the one to go with her on the first trip. Immediately he felt mean and cowardly at the prospect of Luna in a stomach-lurching fall and breaking a leg... or her neck. He forced himself to try to sound unconcerned. "Luna, if you like, I don't mind going first with the professor. That's best I think. Yes. It should be me."

Luna could see the nervousness that Harry was trying to hide. "Harry, you are such a gentleman! But there is an important reason why it really should be me first."

"What's that?" Relief started to show on Harry's face that there might be a good excuse he could not go.

"You haven't finished your breakfast yet," smiled Luna then she changed the topic before Harry could protest. "Anyway, I'm curious about the hexes; they might be contagious don't you think?"

"Contagious? How can curses and hexes be contagious? Like a disease you mean?" said Harry.

"Not quite, but I wonder if their effects might linger and be carried over to someone else," said Luna. "Do you remember that Rolf's grandfather had to treat himself after freeing Mrs. Preed of melancholy? And he never went near the hexes."

"Hang on," said Harry, "that reminds me. When I went to see Worley in her office I came out really depressed. I thought it was because of all the things I remembered happening in that room - Umbridge and so on. But maybe Worley had just come back from the volcano?"

"Perhaps," said Luna. "Did that mood fade naturally in time?"

"Yes - well..." Harry paused, thinking back, "It was just after that we all had a flaming row in the Gryffindor common room - you remember, Luna - you were there. I upset Ginny then she scared the hell out of me and soon we were all arguing. Luckily, Neville returned from hospital in the middle of the quarrel and then we had the party - so that's the cure! If we get depressed then we all party!"

"Sounds good to me." said Rolf with a grin.

Luna looked very serious. "Rolf, Do you think you might test magically for any effects on Feya when she comes back for you all - just in case?"

Rolf agreed.

Harry started crunching on his bacon as they stared out over the valley. "I wonder what's out there?" he mumbled between bites.

"Us - as soon as possible, I hope," said Rolf. "You finish your breakfast, Harry. You still ready to go, Luna?"

"Yes, of course. We three girls will venture forth unprotected and helpless into the unknown." smiled Luna.

"Two deadly witches and an elf whose a wizard at making bacon!" laughed Harry as he choked down another rasher. "I can hear those hexes trembling from here."

"Seriously, Luna. Take great care," said Rolf. "I don't want... Can you send your patronus back with a message as soon as you get there so I... so we know you're safe?"

"I don't know how to send a message but I can send my patronus," said Luna, "but what can you do if..."

"That's what worries me," said Rolf.

Bingley was showing signs of restlessness so the three of them went back to the campfire. She considered their suggestion of sending back a patronus if all was well but then disagreed.

"This is what we'll do. If you hear nothing from us for, let's see, fifteen minutes - or see our red sparks in the sky or either Luna or I send back a patronus without a message it's a warning that something bad has happened and you must not proceed. You must remain here, go into hiding and wait for the aurors..."

There were cries of dissent from all sides.

"How can we just sit here knowing something has happened to you?" exclaimed Rolf, looking fearful and particularly at Luna.

"You will be in charge, Rolf," explained Bingley. "If you can think of anything better to do, knowing you risk everyone else, then do so. However, that's the worst case. If I have time to include a message with my patronus then it may qualify the danger or even tell you that everything is fine. But hopefully none of that will matter because if all is well then Feya will return within the first few minutes to apparate the rest of you across. So be ready to move. Rolf, you should break camp and pack up in preparation."

There was general grumbling and muttering amongst them all but eventually they had to agree it made sense whether they liked it or not. Their discussion was interrupted by a fearful shriek from Hermione.

"Dark mark!" Hermione was pointing up and out over the valley. Even through the tree foliage there was no mistaking it. Dense black clouds spread out like poison through the blue sky and at their centre was a huge and terrible image of a green skull and serpent.

Rolf grabbed instruments from his pockets and ran quickly forward at a crouch, throwing himself down to a crawl through low foliage as he got to the edge of the trees.

Seeing what he was doing, Bingley warned the others to stay back out of sight. "He's getting a fix on the origin."

"Oh, I hope Neville's alright," said Hermione despondently. "What on earth are they doing out there?"

"There's another!" called Ron in a loud, strained whisper, not sure if anyone could possibly overhear or not. He was pointing in the opposite direction, more southerly down the valley.

"And another!" Harry and Ginny spotted this one together; it was nearer the centre of the valley.

Despite Bingley's warning, they were all edging forward to see better, crouching low and behind whatever cover they could find. More dark marks were appearing and the group looked back and forth in alarm and around at each other. The whole sky started to fill with black clouds, casting a dread shadow over the valley below.

"Is this the world curse! Is this happening all over the world!" yelled Ron.

"Where's Luna! Where's Luna!" screamed Ginny, looking wildly around. At her cry, Rolf came quickly back from his forward position, alarm written all over his face.

"There!" called Harry, pointing back a hundred paces behind them amongst the trees where Luna was pushing the branch of a tall shrub to one side. He shouted, "Luna! What..."

He broke off. As the others stared towards Luna, she vanished. The branch she had been holding sprang back into the space remaining and there was only its fluttering leaves to indicate she had been there; Luna was gone.

"I'm here..." It was Luna back amongst them. She was standing gazing into the forest looking grim and a little puzzled. Rolf sagged a little with relief.

"What happened, Luna?" squealed Ginny anxiously. "Are people being taken?"

Luna turned, dropped to a crouch behind a stone block and looked out over the valley. There were now seven dark marks, their evil skulls grinning down from a darkening sky which now completely obscured the sun to create a sinister twilight. Luna got up and went back again to stand facing into the forest. Rolf went after her but after a minute she spoke.

"I think that's it." said Luna and came back and crouched low again with the others to gaze at the awful gloom that was overshadowing the valley.

"You've been testing apparation haven't you?" said Bingley, with a grim smile.

"Yes. There was no time to say anything. It only worked for a few seconds. Sorry if I alarmed everyone," said Luna.

"But what's going on? Can we apparate now?" asked Hermione. Harry got up and went back into the trees to try.

"No Harry. It won't work anymore. Hermione, I think you were right," said Luna.

"Right? About what?" asked Hermione.

"That there probably are not too many of them out there now," said Luna. "We know the dark mark is normally nothing but show to intimidate people or a call to arms for nearby Death Eaters. But putting up seven marks makes no sense to call Death Eaters together who are already here. How would anyone know which mark was which or why?"

"Well, doesn't it tell us there must be seven groups of Death Eaters all over the valley so maybe they are gathering each group together?" suggested Harry.

"That's what they want us to think," said Luna. "They lifted the anti-apparation hexes, just briefly for a few seconds here and there in between the dark marks. It's likely just one or two Death Eaters were apparating to each spot, casting the dark mark then apparating to the next place."

"But why? You mean just to frighten us? To make us think there are thousands of them?" asked Hermione.

"Perhaps. But also to..."

"To trap us when we go to investigate?" finished Ron.

Luna shook her head.

"To waste our time!" Bingley said. "Worley wants us to waste days travelling to all those places."

"Which means she may be making her move soon at the volcano," said Harry. "Whatever she's up to, she wants to delay us while she does it - and to draw us away from the volcano. Professor, I think we should move quickly across..."

"Agreed," said Bingley. "Rolf, did you locate all the sources of all those dark marks? Just in case. We can't just ignore them."

"Yes, I have them. They are all in woodland so it would take longer both to get to them and to search them. We could spend weeks criss-crossing the valley to all those places."

"Good. Thanks Rolf. And thank you Luna," Bingley smiled grimly. "This gloom will help us a little but we have one huge advantage that Worley doesn't know about."

"What's that?" asked Ginny.

"Feya! If we can get across the valley, Worley will have no idea we are there. She'll think we're still on this side." Bingley looked at Rolf.

"Rolf, you're in charge. You know what to do - wait for Feya to come back for you all." Bingley turned to Luna who had anticipated her and was holding Feya's hand. Bingley took Feya's other hand.

"You know where we want to go, Feya?" asked Bingley.

Feya nodded. "Yes, Professor Bingley, Miss Luna has explained to Feya."

Luna turned to Rolf but before she could speak, she, Bingley, and Feya were gone; disapparated. Harry clutched his stomach and tried not to think of them apparating into unnatural places, high or low, too short or too far. Rolf gazed at the empy space where the three had been then looked out over the valley for a while. Here and there a few beams of sunlight were filtering through gaps in the ominous black clouds to reach the ground below to produce an eerie, almost biblical effect. The birds had stopped singing and there was a curious silent expectancy. Finally, Rolf bit his lip and turned to the others. "Let's start packing. Ginny can you watch for a patronus... or rather, watch for Feya returning. There won't be a patronus. There will NOT be a patronus, alright everybody?"

Harry grinned. "Damned right there won't."

But in less than two minutes, Ginny's cry alerted them to a pale blue translucent owl that silently swooped in and perched on a low branch. Everybody froze and stared at it. Bingley's voice uttered forth softly.

We are all fine apart from scratches and bruises. But the shelf is bigger than it looked. Quick test reveals no enchantments, hexes or curses. Lots of dense vegetation - mostly bamboo thickets - too much in fact. May take us half an hour to work through to the edge without making any noise. Then we can test the gap below. We'll send Feya back when we get there. Remain vigilant. Watch for further warnings from us until that time. The owl faded away after the message ended.

Rolf was nodding his head. "Just a few hundred yards probably but yes, it may take them longer than she thinks. They cannot blast through because of the noise. That ledge is only about two hundred feet above the valley floor and we don't know if anyone is below."

After packing up, they all waited tensely. It was just under thirty minutes before the little house-elf re-apparated in their midst and the five of them quickly held onto her, anxious to join the others. Harry also held Ginny's arm, clenched his stomach and closed his eyes. He was trying hard not to think about becoming a fossil when he heard the sound of rushing water.

"Harry Potter sir, we's here" said Feya reassuringly.

Apart from the new sounds, Harry had felt nothing but a slight change in the dampness of the air. Cooking odours were replaced by a mixed fragrance of flowers and there was a new yielding softness under his feet which, when he opened his eyes, he could see was a thick mossy carpet.

"Perfect touchdown," he muttered to himself and gazed around.

They were a good twenty feet back from the drop and all along that edge, most of this twenty foot strip was dominated by tall grassy hummocks and mossy rocks between which broad-leaf plants and ferns dominated. The bamboo did not seem inclined to grow this close to the edge but turning around Harry could see great thickets of the tall woody canes spreading right back to the rock face. Fifty paces away, a substantial and vigorous stream cleared a path out from the wood. It carved through the moss then bubbled and sprayed and disappeared over the edge to the valley below. Above the bamboo thickets behind them, Harry could see the stream was being fed by a narrow fall of water, many hundreds of feet high, cascading almost vertically down the rock face and forming a delicate mist that drifted over the stands of bamboo.

Seeing everyone else was already crouching, Harry dropped to Ginny's side. She pointed out where Luna and Professor Bingley were laying quite happily on the mossy rock right at the very edge and looking down over it. Ron looked at Harry, puffed out his cheeks and widened his eyes. Hermione said, "I'm not sure I want to go that close, Ron, not without a safety rail."

"It'll be just like flying a broomstick - only without a broomstick." said Harry.

Rolf crouched stealthily forward so they all followed him to where Luna and Bingley lay. Even in the false twilight caused by the dark marks it was quite a view and a substantial fall to behold when they got there. To their left they could see the valley still enshrouded in the gloom of the dark mark clouds. Below and just to their right was the gap - the main entrance into the valley. Just outside that they could now clearly see their objective: the volcano.

Ron and Hermione were both nervous. After they had poked their heads out to look down then pulled back a little, Ron gasped, "Don't know why that gives me butterflies in the stomach; I've been higher than this on a broomstick."

"Been higher on a dragon," said Hermione. "Somehow this is different."

"I think it's because we feel supported by a broomstick - it moves with you. Whether dropping up or down it still supports you wherever you go. But here - it's all or nothing." said Harry as he forced himself to look over the edge again.

"You get used to it with time," said Luna, laying next to them. "Look further out instead of straight down. It's a good view of the volcano even though it is rather gloomy."

"I wonder what dark menace is within it though?" murmured Bingley.

"How'd we get to it?" asked Ron.

"I cannot detect any Death Eaters down there so Feya and I are going to apparate just outside the gap to get a closer look at the volcano."

"No!" cried Harry, Luna, and Rolf almost together. On seeing Bingley's astonishment, Luna quickly added, "I mean, we were discussing this earlier and we feel sure it's too dangerous to jump in that close. Everything points to that being the centre of the curse - a very evil, powerful curse. We think we should approach slowly on foot. We don't know what dangers there might be. Surely there'd be protective curses don't you think?"

"Mmm... Probably you're right but..." began Bingley.

"Let's go right now straight below us, you and I, Professor. We can walk that distance in less than an hour, "said Luna quickly, desperate to prevent anyone from apparating directly to where she knew Mrs. Preed had reported powerful hexes but unable to warn them. "Feya! Can you take myself and the Professor straight down?"

Feya popped into view from nowhere that Harry could see and said warmly, "Yes, Miss Luna. Feya is always happy to help."

Rolf did not want Luna to go but he knew what she was trying to do and he also knew that Bingley would insist he remain here. "Perhaps Harry could go instead?" he suggested.

"Yes, let us three go together with Feya." said Luna hastily. She had already taken Feya's outstretched hand and was urging Harry with her eyes.

Harry felt rushed but he also felt obliged. "Can you see a good spot down there, Feya?"

Harry's stomach lurched as Feya immediately swung herself out over the edge and hovered there, still clinging to Luna's outstretched arm like a balloon on a string. Hermione converted a squeal into a forced cough. Feya pointed downwards. "Yes sir, Harry Potter, sir. Take a look."

"I'll take your word for it." said Harry quietly.

Ginny and Hermione looked rather worriedly at Harry but Bingley finally agreed and the four of them were soon down on the valley floor in tall grasses, tangled shrubs and straggly, woody bushes. The volcano seemed nearer and taller suddenly. Bingley was already casting detection spells but found nothing.

They advanced cautiously with Bingley a few steps ahead. Harry had to crouch slightly to keep his head below the top of the grasses but the others could walk comfortably and Feya was often completely obscured around their knee-level. Harry and Luna also began using their wands to sniff out curses - ironically using spells taught to them by Professor Worley in their Defence Against The Dark Arts classes.

It was only as they were actually passing out of the valley through the gap that Bingley began to detect traces of magical effects but what, she could not tell. The further they went the stronger these became and Bingley was casting protections over them all.

Luna slowed down further and further behind Harry then stopped, clutching her stomach. "I feel nauseous, Harry. I think I'm going to be sick."

Harry turned around. She did indeed look very pale. "Professor, back here. Luna's not well."

A sudden fear gripped Harry. Down, half-hidden in the grasses, Feya was holding Luna's leg and tugging hard, trying to pull her back. She was shouting something but it seemed muffled and Harry couldn't hear her. He couldn't hear anything properly. Luna had her hand over her mouth. Her other hand was pointing at Harry. It was his fault. He was the reason everyone was here. It had been his stupid vision that brought them here. And there would be terrors ahead; horrors unimaginable. He felt his skin creeping and he shuddered. But Luna was not pointing at Harry but past him, behind him. Harry could not bear to turn around to see. He had to run, to get away. He must leave Luna and Bingley and Feya - leave them all here. Let them die. It was his fault.

He must tell Bingley he was leaving. With increasing dread he forced himself to turn around. All movement seemed to be in silent slow motion. Bingley was down on one knee. Only her head and shoulders visible in the tall grass. She was slowly turning around towards Harry. He did not want to see; could not endure seeing that face if it ever turned fully. He knew it would be filled with accusation and he would deserve it. Yet he was transfixed. Terror has its own magnetism. Bingley's face came into view.

It was despair. Utter, absolute, complete despair that Harry saw there. All of the pointlessness and hopelessness in Creation stared back at him from that awful face. And it was creeping towards him. This face, a bottomless pit of drab futility was creeping towards him like an evil scorpion clawing its way to accuse him.

Harry fled. He turned and tried to run from that dread thing. His legs seemed as heavy as lead. It would overtake him. That thing would surely reach him. But where could he go? Where was safe? Ahead of him now was Luna with Feya curled up on the ground still clutching Luna's leg. Luna was trying to kill him now, pointing her wand. He knew he deserved it but he had to stop her; had to end her life before she took his. He pulled out the elder wand. It was absolute evil. Like a long straight finger of death it pointed at Luna - but it also pointed accusingly back at Harry too. It was taking over. It would consume him.

His knees buckled and he was sucked forward suddenly, grasped by a vortex, pulled by Luna's wand, hurled past her as in a slow, never-ending dream. He saw her staring face looking at him as he passed by. He collapsed on the ground, deep in the grasses. He tried to crawl away but his legs felt so weak.

The face was now there too; that awful face silently mouthing its despair. Luna too had followed him still looking like she would vomit; still with that shrivelled up little elf clinging to her leg like a parasite. Now he was at everyone's mercy. Luna was about to finish him off with her wand and he was too weak to escape. He curled up and covered his head with his arms; tried to burrow into the earth - perhaps she would not be able to find him.

The evil witch was upon him. He could smell the stench of her vomit. She was reaching for his wand, trying to steal his wand. He clung with all his strength to its shaft but he could feel both her hands wrapped around his. Don't let her take it!

A rush of sound dispelled the silence: commotion, shouting, sobbing - his own.

"Harry! Harry! Are you alright? You're safe here. Lie still." Luna's voice seemed a little threatening but she was not quite so terrifying as before. She had to turn away to be sick again. Strike while her back is turned; while she's helpless, Harry thought. But his fear was being lessened and sanity was returning.What am I thinking? She's not a serious danger If I'm careful. Or is she trying to trick me?

Harry managed to turn his head. The face was there; Bingley's face. Still terrible with despair but not so awful now. Bingley was shaking. "It was foolish of us to come here, Harry. We cannot possibly succeed. We must go back."

"Professor - stop Luna. She's trying to kill me..." said Harry, weakly.

"Why? What's the point?" replied Bingley. She sat down and just stared around vacantly.

Harry could hear Luna still retching on his other side. He had to make an effort. He managed to sit up. He still had the elder wand in his hand but it no longer accused him. He used the only healing spell he knew on Bingley but it was not a curse-breaker and seemed to have no effect. He managed to stand and turned to Luna. He had to stop her now, had to finish her for good. But seeing her crouched in the grasses, convulsing with nausea, he took pity on her first - then perhaps he would just bind her after all. He repeated the same healing spell he had just used on Bingley, "Vulnera Sanentur Volgaris!"

This was more successful. Luna gasped then started to suck in air, taking deep breaths to clear her mind. Still sitting half-hidden in the grass, she wiped her mouth and thanked Harry in a weak voice then picked up the pathetic little figure of Feya in her arms. Luna looked at Harry. She was cradling Feya like a mother with a little baby. Harry stared. Seeing the innocent scene, his fears lessened further. He did not strike. He used the healing spell again and Feya started to stir.

"What happened?" It was Bingley. "What should I do?" She sounded confused and half-hearted but partly rational at least. Perhaps the healing had helped a little.

"Professor, you have been cursed. Are you able to use a counter-curse on yourself? I don't know how." said Harry.

"Counter-curse? On what?" Bingley replied.

"It's melancholy - despair - I don't know what the curse is."

"I suppose so" Bingley stared at nothing in particular and she did not do anything.

"Professor! You must use a counter-curse on yourself." said Harry.

"There's the glumbumble. Perhaps its the glumbumble." said Luna, hopefully. "It makes really sad treacle."

"But this is a curse, Luna. If only we had Hermione. She'd know what it is."

"Feya can fetch Miss H'miney." Feya was trying to get up from Luna's lap.

"Are you strong enough? Rest a while longer," said Luna.

"Feya must help. Feya will fetch Miss H'miney." With a snap of her fingers she was gone.

Harry looked at Luna. "How are you doing, Luna?"

"Not too bad," Luna replied ruefully. "Not as bad as you look anyway."

Harry ran his hand through his hair and realized he was soaked in sweat. He shuddered with a sudden chill at the memory of his fears.

"What's happened, Harry? What's wrong?" It was Hermione, good old, dependable, Hermione.

"Curses and hexes. I think we'll be alright but Professor Bingley - it's some sort of melancholy..."

Hermione delved into her bag and rummaged for a book. "It's probably Dejectus... Ah yes... This little-used dark curse produces deep melancholia and feelings of..."

"Just do it, Hermione." cut in Harry.

While Hermione practiced the counter-curse on Bingley, Harry looked at Luna more carefully. "You need any more help? Was it just nausea? I was terrified. I was going to kill you."

"No - you were going to kill yourself. You were holding your wand backwards." said Luna.

"I was? How did you..."

"I had no idea how to counter the curse so I used Jelly-Legs and Mobilicorpus to move you to a safer area. Then I did the healing spell with your own wand, Harry. It's very effective. The curse is still there I think though."

"I'm fine but a little weak and my stomach feels empty," continued Luna, "Just that I need to clean myself up a little... Tergeo!"

Having cleansed her own clothing she asked Hermione if she had any strengthening potions and settled for one that was a sweet dark cream like melted chocolate. The potion drove away the empty weakness and filled her up with a warm glow like brandy after a very big dinner.

Bingley seemed to be recovering. They were out of range of the hexes but Luna persuaded everyone to move a little further away and test each other for lingering effects. Bingley was not yet well enough to form a thought happy enough to summon her patronus so Feya took Hermione back to explain to the others what had happened.

Bingley sighed. "So many repellent hexes. And so powerful. They were breaking through my protections. They seem to extend as far as I can detect. I think they may extend all the way to the volcano or even come from it."

"What do we do now? Can we break them?" asked Luna.

"Not at all." said Bingley. "I've never seen anything like this. Even the Ministry of Magic is not this well guarded." She was still anxiously using her wand to check herself and the others for any effects.

Feya apparated again at Luna's side and Harry had a sudden thought. He crouched down to the elf. "Feya, are you able to lift me up? I don't mean apparate but can you actually lift me into the air? I mean, I saw you floating off the ledge up there earlier and..."

"Yes, of course, Harry Potter, sir. Feya can float heavy sacks of potatoes up onto high shelves easily." laughed the little elf. "Feya is very strong for a little one."

"What had you in mind, Harry?" asked Bingley. She still lacked enthusiasm but was thinking more sensibly.

"If I could float up I might be able to fly - well clear over the top. I can test as I go... It'll be like flying my old Firebolt - no disrespect intended Feya," he added hastily.

"Harry Potter is most gracious, sir. Disrespect? Never sir! Feya could never be offended by Harry Potter, sir." squeaked the house-elf, almost scandalized to think of such a thing.

It was at this moment that one of the occasional sunbeams broke through like a searchlight to illuminate the area they were intending to reach.

"I think for this you had better use disillusionment," said Bingley. "Feya, will you be able to find us again?"

"Yes Professor. House-elves is good at finding where they should be and Feya can find Miss Luna always." smiled Feya.

This was not what Harry had planned. He had imagined clinging to Feya would be something like holding on to his visible broomstick. But when he rose invisibly into the air he seemed to be on his own. He felt for a moment completely out of control and a wave of fear swept through him. Just as quickly that feeling left him and he realized every particle of his entire body was supported. He did not 'leave his stomach behind'. Instead he felt no queasiness whatsoever just as if he were on solid ground. It was the strangest feeling - almost like looking at pictures of scenery in a magazine except these images surrounded him. He could look all around and through himself. He felt just like a viewpoint in space. His only contact was the invisible little hand holding his.

"Harry Potter, sir?" queried the elf's voice next to him.

"Erm.. yes, Sorry... Took my breath away for a moment but... keep going slowly up until I say." Harry felt for and pulled out his invisible wand and gripping it firmly, began testing. They were less than fifty feet up when the detection of the hexes seemed to fade so Harry prompted Feya to float them a little higher then slowly forward towards the volcano.

The sunbeam had oddly failed before it reached beyond the gap and the volcano remained gloomily dark but Harry could clearly see the light grey rocks that were strewn down this side just as he remembered them from Voldemort's memory. By the time they were over those slopes it seemed darker still but Harry could detect no curses at all and suggested that they cautiously descend.

If the invisible disembodied flight had been one of Harry Potter's strangest experiences then standing on what once had been only an ominous and remote memory was equally unsettling. He felt like he was on the moon - the unattainable. "We're actually here. We're standing on the volcano," he said aloud, looking around at the dead, tumbled boulders of slag.

"Yes, Harry Potter, sir," was all Feya could say, wondering if her ability to make this simple journey had been in doubt.

There was nothing to see. They still could not see each other and Harry kept his grip of Feya's hand. In every direction were just the cold, hard rocks. Rocks and boulders of every shape and size lay as if they had fallen there long ago. There was no vegetation, no greenery. All was dead. No doubt Mrs. Preed could have defined the stones but to Harry they were just stones. After the strangeness of arriving there was an anti-climax. What was I expecting? A nice cave entrance with a neon sign? 'Voldemort's World Curse. Please Step Inside!' Do volcanoes even have caves?

"Sir?"

"Mmm?"

"Harry Potter is muttering to himself, sir. Feya was wondering..."

"Yes, yes, of course. Whether to bring Luna and Professor Bingley over? It's safe here so you can apparate them." said Harry.

"No sir. Feya is wondering where the valley has gone to."

Harry stared down in shock at where Feya's voice was coming from and then back to the valley. All he could see was a continuous rock face. He looked back and forth along the surface thinking he had somehow got turned around and was looking the wrong way but then he realized what had happened.

"Is Miss Luna inside the rock? Is Miss Luna alright?" wailed Feya.

"It's alright, Feya. The valley is hidden inside. I'd forgotten the whole valley is magically hidden," said Harry. "Luna is alright. You can go back now and bring them."

"Feya is happy to serve Miss Luna's friends." said the elf and vanished.

Harry Potter stood alone. He was tasting yet another very strange experience. Here he was completely alone and isolated as if on a dead planet - yet surrounded not by the vacuum of space but by equally deadly dark curses and hexes. I'm a prisoner here if the hexes surround the entire volcano. he thought to himself.

He had no time to ponder further. Luna, Bingley, and Feya, all apparated visibly together by his side.

"Are you here, Harry?" asked Bingley.

"Erm... Yes, just a moment." He removed the disillusionment charm and Bingley quickly suggested they move behind some of the larger boulders to discuss what to do next.

"It seems almost like night but it's still only morning so there's lots of time left today," said Luna as they peered out from a cluster of tall rocks. "It is rather gloomy but do you think perhaps we should get everyone down here and begin searching these slopes as soon possible?"

"Yes, we need to keep moving. The Death Eaters must be protecting this mountain for a reason." said Bingley. "There are seven of us - eight including Feya. We can't examine every square inch of this mountain in a day but I think with the mobility that Feya gives us we might be able to scan most of it for magical effects. There has to be something."

Luna sent Feya back up to the ledge to fetch the others while they decided how they would search. Harry would fly up with Feya and test the higher areas and the top; the rest of them would split into pairs and work around the lower areas.

It was a very unrewarding task for all of them. The atmosphere was so dark and gloomy overshadowed by the clouds and the menacing dark marks themselves while the mountain was featureless. broken black and grey rock everywhere. In addition, the valley side where the gap was hidden now looked like a narrow gorge overshadowed by rock on both sides. They dare not use any lights because as Bingley explained, light could not come out from the valley but it certainly could go in.

After a few hours they were exhausted trying to keep a foothold on the crumbling scree and discouraged by the complete lack of any magical influences whatsoever. The only indication of any human activity were traces of what might have been an old camp. But there were only a few empty boxes and a couple of crates. Some rusted pots and pans and other corrupted equipment suggested it was years old.

"This might have been where the Death Eaters camped when they set up the hexes," suggested Bingley.

They all pressed on, barely stopping to have a few cold sandwiches. The searching was so unpleasant they all wanted to get it over with as soon as possible. Bingley had thrown off her negativity and was able to send her patronus back and forth to keep everyone in touch. Harry was sending Feya to help move people where needed. When the sun went down even the gloomy light started to disappear; within minutes it was getting very black and Bingley called them all back to the cluster of rocks they had first made their base.

Hermione was almost weeping with fatigue and leaning on Ron. She was unable to help set up camp. Rolf and Harry raised the Weasley tent. Bingley put up protective and alerting spells and was confident not even a mouse could get near without them knowing about it. And even that seemed hardly likely because during the entire day nobody had seen any life at all except each other.

They all fitted comfortably into the tent and were glad to shut out the miserable, endless stretches of black and grey stone they were all sick of seeing. Feya prepared a tasty meal from what was available but they were all too tired mentally and physically to fully enjoy it and sat gloomily around some cold phantom flames Bingley had produced more as a focus than of any use. Hermione had already fallen asleep fully clothed on one of the bunks without eating and Feya had put a blanket over her and tucked her in.

"Tomorrow we start afresh. We have to come up with something," said Bingley.

"What are you thinking, Rolf?" said Luna, "You've been rather quiet the last hour."

Rolf stirred from his contemplations. "I'm not as good a geologist as my mother but I'm fairly sure this vocano is completely dead - extinct - probably for millions of years. And as a wizard I'm inclined to think it is utterly magically dead too. There's nothing here."

There were mild protestations all round because nobody wanted to accept all their effort was for nothing but deep down everyone had begun to feel the same.

"So why are all those hexes protecting it?" said Ron, glumly.

"Professor, do they completely surround the mountain?" asked Luna.

"I assume so. I... Well, that's a good question." Bingley looked thoughtful.

"Suppose they are not to protect the volcano but to stop anyone getting into the valley. If the valley were not hidden then this would be the main entrance to it." said Luna.

"But that means... What's the point of the volcano then?" asked Harry.

"No point at all." said Luna.

"But... How..." Ron would have spluttered but he was too tired.

"So... whatever we are looking for might be anywhere in the valley?" concluded Bingley.

"But that would take months of searching," said Rolf.

Morale was now at its lowest ebb. They had wasted an entire day and now had no idea where to continue or for what they were looking. They all began to envy Hermione and decided to call it a day and get some sleep.

If they hoped to awaken fresh and invigorated the next morning they were disappointed. The dark marks still hovered high over the false mountain range that hid the valley and the group's feelings were as gloomy as the scenery. Bingley was for crossing the valley back and forth for as long as it took to find what they were after. Rolf was insistent that she did not realize the enormity of the search. Most everyone else would have been in favour of abandoning the expedition and returning home - if it were not for one thing. Neville was still missing. None of them could bear to think of just leaving him here no matter how hopeless the task of finding him.

They were so desperate for any way to proceed that they all went down to the old camp they had discovered but there really was nothing there to be discovered. Ron was checking an old haversack to see if it was a portkey - but it really was just an empty, dried out old haversack. Harry was examining what little was left in a crate but there were only a few old cans of food and some tacky crushed packaging.

Bingley spoke. "Well, I've run out of ideas. We're completely stuck. Any suggestions anyone? Otherwise we must go back into the valley and begin searching no matter how useless it might seem."

"Luna, how about you? Now would be a good time to start thinking backwards." laughed Harry drily.

Luna thought for a while but shook her head. "I'd need a really big box for this one, Harry."

Harry walked over to the open crate and tipped it over. He began throwing out the contents.

Ron was not laughing. "Harry, this is no time to be fooling around."

"What are you doing, Harry?" asked Hermione.

"We need a really big box for Luna to think outside of." said Harry very seriously.

"Don't be ridiculous! That's just a figure of speech!" exclaimed Hermione.

Harry gritted his teeth. "Do you think we don't know that! Luna knows the box itself can't do anything - but it reminds her to stop thinking routinely - to consider other alternatives. There we are, Luna." Harry had finished emptying the crate, He turned it upright again and dragged it over. Luna was already getting a folded blanket out of Hermione's bag. She brought it over, dropped it on the sharp black stones next to the crate, sat down on it, leaned back against the crate, and closed her eyes.

Bingley took Harry aside. Hermione and Ron went with them, followed by Ginny.

"This makes no sense, Harry!" said Bingley. "I admit Luna is intuitively clever but she has nothing to start with. She can't solve a problem without any information. We cannot afford the time to sit around here. We have to start searching."

"That's right, Harry," said Hermione, "You've taken this too far. We all love Luna but your faith in her is absurd." She looked back at Luna. Rolf was sitting down with her now.

Harry started to speak very loudly then lowered his voice and dragged the others further from Luna so as not to disturb her. "How and where can we search? This valley is huge and we don't know what we are looking for and it's likely to be magically hidden. It would be like searching for an invisible needle in a haystack."

"We have to try!" exclaimed Bingley.

"Well then let's try this first. Let's see if Luna can come up with any ideas first. Give her a chance. I've seen her come up with some amazing insights."

"Yes but she always has something to work on. She can't find something that she doesn't have any idea what it is or any idea where to look can she? Be reasonable." Hermione was exasperated. "Do you seriously think she going to suddenly point where the curse is!"

"Give her time..."

"Time? Time! We don't have time, Harry!" cried Bingley.

"One hour is all I'm saying..." Harry broke off. He could see the astonished look on everyone's faces. He followed their gaze. Luna was already coming over but she looked rather worried.

"I have an idea... but I'm not sure about it." said Luna.

"Let's hear it." said Bingley with a mixture of surprise and doubt but willing to listen to anything.

"Harry, do you still have your... Voldemort's clear memory of the volcano?" Luna asked.

"Yes, of course."

"But can you remember the precise details of how it looked?"

"Yes, it's a very vivid memory."

"It didn't look like this though did it?" said Luna.

"Yes it did. Sorry Luna but this is the volcano alright." Harry sounded disappointed. If Luna's idea was based on the assumption they were in the wrong place then they were back to square one.

"Yes but this was not Voldemort's view of it was it?"

"No, but it's the same volcano I'm certain though he must have been looking at it from way over... Oh ... My ... God! Luna!" Harry grabbed her and kissed her on the mouth causing Ginny to grin at Luna's wide-eyed astonishment. Harry turned to the others.

"Don't you see? We have to find the place where Voldemort was looking from - maybe a mile or two in that direction!" Harry pointed west to the hidden valley. "The volcano is not the source of the curse! It's just the most memorable, distinctive thing around here. He would have seen it every day from over there! No wonder its a strong memory."

"Yeah, well - bit obvious though really weren't it?" muttered Ron.

Hermione sighed and looked at Luna with a new respect, "Except that none of us thought of it."


Chapter 18: Neville's Fate
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It took years for Neville Longbottom to overcome his childhood fears - or at least to ignore them while he was confronted with a daunting task. His youth had been blemished by nervousness with occasional surges of bravery although he had never recognized the latter as such. Now his old timidity had a hard time finding purchase in his thinking and when it did it found little encouragement or recognition; it was withering away from lack of attention.

Neville believed in principle and he believed he would win through when a more sensible outlook might be dominated by the hopelessness of a bad situation. To use an old-fashioned word, Neville put his trust in righteousness - not just for its own sake but because he thought it would always eventually succeed against evil. His enthusiasm forgot that many well-intentioned heroes failed along the way to that success. Neville's courage was therefore of the naive kind. He needed every ounce of that courage right now for he was surely being tested.

He did not know how long he had been unconscious but he thought it must be more than a day for his throat was painfully dry and breathing was uncomfortable. His mouth was half open and at least regular breaths were being drawn over his tongue and down his throat but it was harsh and unpleasant. He was sure he had been hit by a stunning spell so the body-bind that now held him must have been added afterwards. During the single occurrence previously in which he had experienced, courtesy of Hermione Granger, a prolonged body-bind, only an hour or so had passed before Madame Pomfrey had lifted the curse and freed him. This time it was much longer.

The gloomy light did not vary much so he did not know if it was day or night but he had slept once so he was sure this was his second day - at least after he had first woken up. It seemed this day would be just another day lying there on what seemed to be an old piece of faded carpet; nothing much to see; nothing to do but think and wait and suffer the helpless feeling of paralysis.

The only movement he had was that of his eyes but there was little to see. The walls of the room he was in were formed of a dark granular stone which reduced what ambient light there was even further. There were very few features to break the monotony. Apart from distinctive cracks in the stone, an old cobweb in a corner, and a single alcove crossed by stone shelving, there was only one other thing of note in range of his sight: Someone, probably Bingley, lay on the floor across from him facing a wall. He felt sure it must be her because nobody else had been wearing a cloak. He wondered if she were conscious too. If so, she had only the blank wall to stare at.

Neville scanned what he could see of the shelves again though he knew every inch by heart: three brown pottery bowls, the handle of what might be a hammer sticking out, and a tall crystal vase containing some wilted cut roses. Lucky Roses! he thought. At least they had something to drink before they died. He wondered if he would look like them soon: all dried out and grey.

There was nothing and no one else within his limited view and he hoped his friends had all survived and were lying behind him. He would give anything to turn over and see. Could any of them have escaped? Hardly seems likely. Voldemort is back - resurrected somehow. Even if they had fled through the trees they would not have got far. They would have been overtaken by all those Death Eaters. Anyway, there's no way they would have deserted Harry and me. He did not want to think that way anymore.

He tried to recall the fight again, to go over it in his mind. Harry had been somewhere on his left and slightly behind Neville. He had had a fleeting glimpse of him being overwhelmed by hordes of Death Eaters. Had he survived? He had heard him calling out something, telling everyone to run. But Neville had been faced with both Voldemort and Worley and was not going to turn his back on either of them.

He remembered he had invoked a shield charm audibly while casting Bombarda silently. Worley's leg had given way. She had cried out and stumbled down to one knee twisting over to one side but her own shield had absorbed part of the blast. Only Voldemort's stunning spell had prevented Neville from following through to defeat Worley before she recovered from the stagger.

It worked! Neville thought to himself with some grim satisfaction. He had practiced that combination many times at D.A. meetings and also while on his own at home in an empty room. For some reason he could inwardly 'feel' Bombarda quickly and fluidly almost as one syllable so it was the charm he had been most successful at in nonverbal classes. He began to wish he could do it without a wand too - that might be useful right now. He visualized himself silently blasting the first person who came through the door. Would they be in for a surprise! But is there even a door? What if I'm walled in here?

Through the ensuing hours, Neville's mind lost its way. He had waking dreams in which he tried to move the hammer with his mind. He saw himself hammering through the stonework then ridiculously hopping to safety like an unbandaged mummy. Sometimes when he hammered away in his dream there was no head on the hammer - it was just a shaft tapping ineffectively on the walls of his stone prison.

Neville came fully awake with a start. His dry throat and mouth were now torture. He looked at the vase of roses. Could he lift it? Smash it on the ground near him and... He had a few moments of disappointment as he realized he could not lick up water even if he were lying in a bathful of it.

Was there even any water in the vase? The cut glass was dirty but he could see a grime mark around the level he would have expected there to be water. He stared through the gloom.

He had sometimes performed wandless magic and sometimes nonverbal magic - but not together. Wait a minute! Most wizard children spontaneously do this. I did this! It must be possible. It's just that we don't normally... He thought back to when he was a child. The neighbour's large dalmation had got into his garden and barked ferociously at him. He had turned and leapt into his bedroom to escape. His bedroom window had been closed - and it was on the second floor. The dog had later been found several miles away looking rather chastened. Had all that been apparation? He had no idea. He had been five years old. Leaping that vase over to him ought to be easy by comparison. Except that he could not drink from it.

He stared at the space in the vase that he hoped was water. Dirty water, filthy water - no doubt - but blessed, cool, drinkable water! But how? What he would give just for a mouthful... Just one mouthful. He could manage that surely?

Neville started to practice. He focused on one small piece of water in the vase. He knew he did not need to be precise. He had only to visualize it, focus on his concept of it, where it was. He thought of the many levitating spells and decided on the one he knew best and had used most often.

Wingardium Leviosa!

Nothing. Nothing at all. He did not permit himself the luxury of despair. Practice! Practice! When did anybody do any useful magic without practice!

And so he tried. For almost an hour he invoked the hover charm in his thoughts without any visible success.Why? Why? Why? I'm as desperate now as I was when that dog - No! I was scared! Everybody knows children usually produce involuntary magical effects only during emotional upsets - anger, fear, excitement, even euphoria!

Neville tormented himself. He blanked everything out of his mind except one thing; the one thing he hated to think about more than any other. He thought of his parents suffering at the hands of the Lestranges and Crouch. They squirmed and screamed in his thoughts as they were driven mad by the cruciatus curse. In his imagination they begged Neville to help but he just lay there helplessly staring past them at the water. He focused on this image until he felt he could bear it no longer - yet he persisted. He stayed with this one thought until he would have wept if he had had a single tear to weep - and still he persisted. He convinced himself this horror was really happening forever unless he succeeded - and still he persisted. He terrified himself that he would fail - and even then he persisted. And throughout it all, behind the visualization, he kept the feeling of the ongoing incantation. Wingardium Leviosa. And finally, he shocked himself and lost control when abruptly it really seemed to him that he would fail them.

He screamed. Inwardly, silently, he screamed his unbearable anguish. The water trembled. He saw it now. There was water in the vase. There really was water in the vase.

He was burning up now with exertion. If he had not been so seriously dehydrated he would have been sweating profusely. He did not know it but he was dangerously close to passing out and not recovering. Yet he had to continue.

It was almost another hour of emotional agony, dizziness, and blurring vision, before he raised his first distorted, twisted lump of water. It slid up around the dessicated rose stems, floated clear, and flipped itself into a sphere - a bubble of water. It moved silently through the air towards him, quivering hesitantly now and again; sometimes pausing. Do not drop it!

As it approached his face he imagined he could smell it. The glassy-looking sphere approached his lips. At the last moment it wobbled precariously - then it kissed his lips and pressed on into his mouth. He kept it moving deeper and deeper. It distended and shaped to the inside of his mouth and over his tongue. It had no taste but was cool and soothing and delightful. As it touched the back of his throat there was a painful swallowing reflex and he felt it go down. It seemed pure. He supposed he had only focused on the water. He had only tried to levitate water and water was all he got. All the impurities must have been left behind. It was refreshing but the sense of accomplishment and exhilaration he felt empowered him to continue much more than that first meagre drink of water itself did.

The next bubble was harder and so was the next but then it gradually became easier. He did not even need the emotional torture anymore now he knew how it felt to invoke this spell silently and without a wand. He had drunk a quarter of all the the water before he hit on the idea of using the refilling charm to top up the vase with water - and most of yet another hour to achieve it. He did not know if he was simply delaying his own death but at least he was doing something even if it was only one frustrating mouthful of water at a time.

~~~~~~~~~~~~


Harry Potter drank deeply from his water flagon and sighed with both relief and disappointment. They had been moving all day - sometimes apparating short distances with Feya, sometimes just hiking - and he still could not quite see the view of the volcano that matched his memory.

"I think it's further away and slightly to one side," said Harry. "It doesn't help having all these trees in the way. I only get a partial glimpse now and again."

"I'm wondering if the trees were even here all those years ago. Voldemort probably had a clear view of the volcano twenty or more years ago." said Professor Bingley.

"Before I was..." began Harry. "I was thinking he set this up only a couple of years ago."

"No, the remains in the village are much older. He must have been planning this a long time and he wasn't around after he attacked your parents - not physically anyway."

"The light's fading. I think we have to call a halt for the night and make camp," said Rolf.

Harry sighed, "Suits me."

During the day, as they progressed, the others had been fruitlessly searching a little way left and right and ahead to try to spot any sign of a building or indication of human activity. Harry now called them back as agreed with his patronus.

"Double layers of protective spells," warned Bingley. "We must be close so hide all lights, sounds, even cooking smells."

After they had all eaten, Ron was talking quietly with Hermione while Professor Bingley and Rolf were on first watch. Ginny went and sat with Harry, Luna, and Feya. Ginny looked up at the Dark Marks and the dark clouds overhead and made a wry smile. "Seems there is always something dark hanging over us, Harry."

"It won't always be this way." said Harry, taking her hand, but Ginny could tell he was not confident.

"Do you think Neville will be alright, Luna?" asked Ginny.

"I don't know. Professor Worley went to a lot of trouble to keep him alive for something so it's encouraging that she is still doing so don't you think?" said Luna.

"So long as we can reach him soon," said Ginny.

"Well, we must be close," said Harry.

"I wonder what he's doing right now?" said Ginny. "I wonder if he's thinking of us coming to rescue him? If he only knew we were near..."

Harry wondered if, in fact, Neville was anywhere near where they were trying to reach but he kept quiet. He could have been apparated to Timbuctoo for all we know.

Luna spoke, "I'm sure he'll know we'll do everything we can to help him. He'll take comfort from that but he won't know where we are."

Ron and Hermione moved nearer the other three and Ron spoke. "Me and Hermione... we've been talking. We think we might be able to tell him..."

Luna was quick on the uptake. She held up her hand to tell Ron to wait and asked Feya to go and sit with Rolf and help him watch which the little elf was delighted to do.

"It's the mental realm don't you see!" said Hermione excitedly once the house-elf was out of earshot. "Look, in the mentasphere there is no comprehension of space or anything physical. There is not even human language. It's all concepts, impressions, ideas, pure abstract knowledge - but we share those."

Ron cut in. "We think we can convey the ideas of nearness, relationship, position - no, not position... erm. I don't know the words for it..."

"And that's the problem," said Hermione. "We can experience the mental but back in this physical world we can't really comprehend it or describe it. The same is true in the mental realm - it cannot comprehend the physical."

"So how the hell do we tell Neville where we are then?" asked Ginny abruptly.

Hermione answered. "We don't know exactly where Neville is but we have a good idea - or hope we do. If we can think of that idea in the mentasphere and the idea of where we are now then if we communicate that to Neville..."

"But he'd need to be aware in the mental world at the same time wouldn't he?" asked Harry.

"Yes, I think so. Not sure," said Ron, doubtfully.

"And anyway, all he'd have is a mental impression of where we are. Plus he might not be where we think he is anyway. What use is any of that?"

"Dunno," said Ron, in a somewhat discouraged tone. "I think..."

Hermione interrupted. "We think that on return to physical sense that mental impression of where we are will re-interpret in his mind as a physical sense of where we are only..."

"Bit if, but, and maybe though isn't it?" said Ginny. "And chances are that Neville won't be going into the mental realm at the same time nor probably ever on his own considering how we were told never to go in with less than three."

"We... I thought it was worth a try," said Ron then muttered, "He might be desperate enough to go in on his own."

"I think it's a wonderful idea," said Luna brightly. "I volunteer. Neville is my bond - his strongest link. I will stay in the realm of the mind for as long as possible - all night if necessary. You can all take it in turns to support me if you will."

"What! Luna are you..." cried Harry.

"Luna's right!" exclaimed Hermione, re-encouraged by her enthusiasm. "The longer we convey the idea then the more chance that Neville will get it."

"Anyway, what else have we got to do but sit around swapping stories?" said Ron, who had also brightened up considerably. "Me and Hermione will go in first with Luna for a couple of hours. Then Harry and Ginny come in and we'll come out."

"Harry, can you explain to Professor Bingley what we're doing and keep Rolf and Feya away?" said Hermione but Bingley was already running over, signalling for silence.

"We're being watched. It seems impossible that anyone can detect us through all the protective spells but there's someone out there." whispered Bingley. "Rolf is going to try to sneak a look."

Luna looked with concern across to where Rolf had been keeping watch but he had already dropped out of sight and only Feya stood there staring out into the forest.

"The foe-glass and sneakoscope show nothing but Rolf seemed certain he sensed someone."

"Could it be Neville!" cried Hermione excitedly. "Could he have escaped? He's a friend. He wouldn't show..."

This prospect raised everyone's hopes. The planned mind session was forgotten as they all moved forward to the south side of their campsite to keep watch for Rolf. It was an anxious few minutes.

"Any point in dousing these lights, Professor?" asked Harry quietly, "or even whispering come to that?"

"Probably not," admitted Bingley in a low but more normal voice. "All we can do is wait."

"Rolf will find him. He's a genius at tracking." said Luna confidently.

"Is that the young man who's crawling about out in the dirt out there?"

Half a dozen wands were raised simultaneously and they all stared around to see who had spoken. It had been the cackle of a crone; the weak, frail voice of an old woman and its tone had been one of mirth.

There was an unearthly faint shriek of broken laughter. "Can't see me can you dearies?"

A shadowy form started to appear in their midst. It was the figure of an old woman in dark robes and a very crooked hat - a very old woman indeed. Harry felt Ginny grab his hand. Some distant part of his mind wanted to squeeze her hand back reassuringly but somehow his grip remained limp with the surprise of the apparition.

The solidifying apparition's face was creased and lined with a mixture of old emotions: worry, fear, pain, but also, and predominantly, merriment. This was someone who had enjoyed life - at least for the most part.

It was Bingley who recovered first but she spoke in a voice as if to a demon that had been summoned from the depths. "Who ... Are ... You?"

The apparition stared at Bingley for a few moments then laughed again with that same unnerving cackle. "There was a time you would have recognized me. My name is Vablatsky."

"Cassandra Vablatsky? The seer? But you're..." exclaimed Ron. Hermione was not the only one to turn and look at Ron in surprise.

"Dead? Not quite yet. Seers sometimes have to... manipulate the truth a little so that the future unfolds as it should."

"Cassandra Vablatsky 1894 - 1997. I've got six of your Chocolate Frog cards. You should have died last year," burst out Ron. "How can the cards be wrong?"

"In a way they are not wrong, "replied the old witch in her weak, strained voice. "I predicted my demise to hide from the world my abduction by Death Eaters. I am delighted to announce that I will not die until this year." Again she broke out in that same maniacal cracked laughter then hobbled slowly towards the campfire where she seated herself and began to warm her hands in front of the flames. The others followed her and, almost unseen except by Luna, Rolf had crept back into camp rather shame-facedly and fell in behind them.

"You were taken by Death Eaters? You have been captive since last year?" asked Ginny.

"Not really captive. An old witch like myself knows a few tricks. But it seemed a convenient place to wait," answered the old woman as she stared into the flames.

"Wait? For what?" asked Hermione.

"Why for you of course! Now how about a cup of tea to warm my old bones?" cried the old woman. Feya hurried to fill a cup from the ever-present teapot.

"Here you are Miss Vablatsky. Feya is proud and happy to serve such a great, such an illustrious witch as yourself."

"Well, you're a sweet little bundle of happiness aren't you my dear? Thank you kindly." and the old woman's face creased up even more so her smile was hard to tell from the giant wrinkles on her face. Feya positively beamed her joy and had to put down the huge teapot so she could clasp her hands together.

"Why, you wrote our textbook, Unfogging the Future didn't you!" exclaimed Hermione as she suddenly recalled where she had heard the name before.

The old lady appraised Hermione for a few seconds as she gulped down the hot strong tea. "I suspect it is no longer your textbook though is it my dear? Am I right?"

Hermione lowered her head and nodded.

Bingley spoke. "So you have managed to escape? Are you able to help us? Perhaps even foresee what will happen?"

The old woman's crooked smile was only half-filled with teeth.

"What do you know? What can we do?" persisted Bingley.

"Everything and nothing," said the old woman. "Now I am very tired. Where can I sleep?" Most everyone was suddenly aware of the immense weariness in the old lady that was not entirely physical. She hobbled off into the Weasley tent and Feya followed her.

"Everything and nothing What the hell does that mean?" grumbled Ron loudly. "Another nutter. Luna, if I ever call you 'Looney' again you have my permission to kick my backside."

"Oh! may I? I look forward to that," said Luna seriously and she sat down and seemed to be pondering the future herself.

"How do we know she's not... one of them? A Death Eater?" asked Ron who still found it difficult to accept a Chocolate Frog Card date that he knew by heart could be untrue.

"Or a hag?" added Ginny. "She looks like a hag. What if she eats one of us in the night? I don't want to sleep in there with her."

"She'd have showed up on the foe-glass," said Hermione.

"Said she knew a few tricks though didn't she?" said Ron darkly. "And how did she get in here anyway? There's no apparation working is there? And how'd she get through the spells? And how'd she know where we were?"

"That's what I'd like to know," said Bingley. "I suppose the keep out spells we've used are not that strong for an advanced witch to break - we rely mostly on nobody knowing we're here."

"And if she's really a seer then she might have predicted we'd be here," offered Luna.

Harry shook his head and turned to Ginny. "I don't like it. I'll sleep with you tonight."

"What!" several voices cried.

"I mean I'll sleep in the tent," said Harry, blushing furiously. "Keep an eye on things - be there if anything happens."

"Sleep with the hag, Harry," grinned Ron. "Cuddle up and stop her doing anything wicked."

"Well, if the girls stop up with me most of the night they can grab a few hours on one of these outdoor bedrolls. It's not cold," said Luna. "Anyway, we ought to get started with what we were discussing earlier." She shot a meaningful glance at Rolf who moved away. He had learned not to ask questions about what they were doing in their 'sessions'.

~~~~~~~~~~~~


Neville listened intently. He had heard a faint, distant sound. His hearing was now very acutely tuned. He had listened only to the sound of his own breathing for a long time. The occasional gulp as he swallowed more water had seemed quite loud in the silence. But this new sound was almost nothing it was so muted. It was...

There it is again! A clicking - slightly louder. A gate or a door opening. Footsteps and voices outside - in the next room?

"You know what she'll do to you when she finds out?"

It was a high, whining, woman's voice. Lestraithe! Neville recognized the voice from just after when the Death Eaters had first attacked them in the pass.

"She doesn't need to know, does she!" It was Draco's voice.

"What if he's dead you idiot! You'll take his place you know that?"

There was a loud clanging and squeaking of a big key turning in a rusty lock and Neville heard their footsteps entering the room. Bright light fell across Bingley but Neville was still in shadow for a moment so he closed his eyes.

"What's up with you, Draco? That's just a corpse. It won't bite," smirked Lestraithe. "Is that why you've not been feeding Longbottom because you daren't go near that body? You pathetic little-"

Bingley! Bingley is dead!" thought Neville to himself. He had feared as much but the confirmation was a shock.

"Shut up! Check Longbottom!" said Draco.

"Ooo... Woo... Daren't you even go near him either in case's he dead too? Well, you'll be a murderer if he is - then he can haunt you."

A rough hand gripped Neville's shoulder and pulled him over onto his back. Neville decided to open his eyes. There was nothing much attractive about Lestraithe and he was fearful of her intentions but he had been deprived of sensations for so long she looked almost handsome - or at least, a rich stimulation for his eyes. She leaned over him.

"Nope. He's gone. Sorry, Draco, you've murdered him. You're in so deep now..." she sneered.

"He's not dead! Out of the way!"

Lestraithe was pushed to one side and Draco stared at Neville. Neville tried not to blink and stared at one spot on the wall. Let Draco sweat for a bit.

Draco felt he hardly knew Neville anymore. He seemed like a different person both physically and as an individual from the chubby nervous boy he had abused years ago. Draco somehow felt inferior; afraid to even touch him.

"He's not is he?" Draco's voice was fearful now.

Lestraithe laughed. "No - help me prop him up."

The two of them dragged Neville to his feet and turned him around. Neville had his first sight of the rest of the room. There was nobody else in it - no bodies alive or dead apart from Bingley. There was a dusty old table against the wall and a filthy wooden chair. The pains began as they sat him on the hard seat, released the body-bind curse and bound him magically with some simpler restraining curse. All down his side, the side upon which he laid for so long, was now throbbing with dreadful aching pains as his circulation tried to restore order. His voice was back and he croaked something inaudible; some groans, some words. He wanted to know where his friends were but could not yet speak sensibly at all.

"Get the tray." said Lestraithe. Draco came back with a billycan of stew and a big jug of water. Fighting the pain, Neville tried to reach out but he could not yet control his arms.

"After this bring him regular food and drink - it won't be much longer anyway." said Lestraithe.

"I'm not coming down here alone - not with... that." muttered Draco.

"Oh for goodness' sake!" Lestraithe uttered some incantations and Neville felt himself floating through the air, out the door and into another room not much different to the last. The chair, table, stew, and waterjug, all came hovering after him and within seconds he was held in the chair again. Draco slammed shut and locked the door to the old room with some finality as if he were afraid Bingley would come crawling out. He turned and look across at Neville half-slumped in the chair.

"That bind won't hold him long..." grumbled Draco.

"What's it matter? He's not going anywhere is he? He's got no wand and he's seriously weak from lack of water. Surely you can handle him with your wand?" Lestraithe was clearly losing patience. "Come on. Leave him to it. I'm hungry myself."

Neville tried to say something again but only croaks came out. Then they were gone. The door was locked from the outside and he heard their voices fading away. This room was only marginally brighter but at least he could see to eat and drink even if he could not yet manage to move his arms precisely. He just sat there for several minutes staring with a mixture of feelings: frustration at not being able to move without risking clumsily knocking over the precious food or drink; elation that he was no longer paralysed; annoyance at the pain that racked down the side of his body; delight in the smell of the stew; anticipation of a huge drink instead of tiny, teasing portions; and finally, curiosity as to what he might gain from this new situation.

~~~~~~~~~~~~


Some hours later, Neville was standing holding the table on its side, its legs pointing away from him, swinging it back and forth like a battering ram, feeling its weight. Most of this weight was carried by his right arm while his left guided the swing more accurately. His right thumb was tucked into a smooth hollow in the wood of the table top and this depression rotated comfortingly around his thumb as he hefted the table. There was no possibility of using the table to smash through the big oak door of his prison of course but he hoped to surprise Draco as he entered, knock him down and grab his wand. He rehearsed this motion now and again from slightly different angles to prepare himself.

Far from being a waste of time, his earlier consumption of water from the vase had given his body more time to recover and, although a little unsteady on his feet, he was almost his normal self now that he had eaten a subtantial meal and had plenty more to drink.

Neville waited patiently behind the door, sitting on the old chair to conserve his strength and with the table at his side. Now and again he would walk around to stretch his legs; he wanted to be ready. He did not know exactly when Draco would return but if he was to bring him food then it must surely only be a few hours - unless it was now night. He did not feel sleepy but he wondered what he was going to do about sleep later. Should he try to stay awake and risk being less alert or should he get some sleep and take a chance that Draco would not return during that time?

He had been listening intently for some time but eventually decided not to strain at it. The room was so silent and his senses so acute that he felt sure he could not miss the slightest sound. The only windows were two very narrow slits and the tiny view they gave showed only a frustrating glimpse of another stone wall - perhaps the opposite side of a corridor. But it was through these gaps that Neville saw, if not a definite passing shadow, then a slight change in the light, and heard soft footsteps which caused him to brace himself, hand and foot, in preparation.

Sadly, not the greatest of plans, nor all the careful preparations, nor all the bravery in the world, will always succeed in accomplishing their purpose. As the door opened and Neville was swinging back the table there was a silent pause which spoilt his timing. As the mass of the table swung forward again it took all of Neville's strength to hold it back so it did not reveal itself to the person still hidden behind the almost-open door.

The table suddenly distintegrated with a loud crack - exploded into thousands of tiny splinters that flew up almost like dust to form a cloud drifting away uselessly in the air. Neville staggered slightly with the sudden loss of his load.

"Stand back, Longbottom!" It was not Draco but Worley's voice. "This is not some schoolboy prank. I can freeze you right through this door so back off!"

Neville sighed - audibly in the quiet room - and resigned himself to taking a few steps backwards. Worley strode purposefully into the room with her wand held in front of her but there was a slight hint of a limp in her walk which did not go unnoticed to Neville Longbottom.

"Looks like you've been in the wars, Worley!" Neville grinned. "Still hurts does it? - Good."

Worley stared at Neville as if reassessing him. She was usually prepared for the unexpected but even she was surprised to see Neville standing erect, arms folded, and with a hard, defiant look in his eyes. Lestraithe had told her he had been severely weakened by lack of water for days and she had expected him to be crumpled up in the chair or even on the floor.

Draco quietly followed Worley into the room. He had the same hollow, haunted look that Neville remembered from the time of the Great Battle of Hogwarts. Neville sensed someone else in the doorway behind him - probably Lestraithe.

"Sit down!" Worley flicked her wand and the chair that Neville had placed behind the door came rapidly hovering over. It passed Neville, turned swiftly behind him, and as the front edge of its seat bumped the back of his knees, he felt a hidden push from the front which forced him to sit down abruptly.

"I never sit while a lady is still standing - so in your case this is fine," said Neville, returning Worley's stare without flinching. For a brief time he was pleased with his own wit but after a few seconds of silence his words hung foolishly in the air as he realized the deadly seriousness of his situation. Worley was not like Voldemort. She was like a cold, thinking machine. She never wasted two words when one would do. She took no pleasure in inflicting pain but neither was she the slightest bit troubled to use torments to achieve whatever she felt was necessary.

Worley signalled behind her and Lestraithe went straight through to the second, inner door - to the room where Neville had first been held. For the first time, Neville noticed Draco was carrying a large canvas holdall and he was now taking from it a pewter flask and a large goblet. Draco looked around for the missing table then shrugged and set the goblet on the floor.

While he was pouring the contents of the flask into the goblet and stirring it with a rod there was a curious scraping sound from the next room. Lestraithe came back in, looked to where Draco was crouched and came forward with a knife whose blade was pressed against her thumb. Trapped between thumb and blade was a shred of something that Neville could not determine. But he could certainly determine the glutinous green-grey mud that Draco was swirling around. He knew the potion and he knew what needed adding to it. And there was only one thing in that room it could be: Bingley.

"No! No! You can't make me drink that!" Neville did not shriek but his voice was high and wild with revulsion - and yes, fear. His fear was not only for himself and his disgust at imbibing part of Professor Bingley's dead body - but also fear for his friends. In an instant he knew some or all of them must have survived - because here was some plan to deceive them - what else could it possibly be? And worse, it was a plan in which he would be used to play a part. What, he did not know - but it could not be good.

It was skin; a grey, sickening shred of skin. Even Draco recoiled away as Lestraithe calmly flipped the sliver of tissue onto the top of the Polyjuice potion where it lay, too flimsy to sink into the viscous liquid.

"Stir it in then!" hissed Lestraithe.

Draco seemed to have to make an enormous effort to bring his hand back to the goblet. He held the stirring rod by the very end as if to distance himself as much as possible. This only added to Neville's dread until he could scarcely believe what really he knew was inevitable.

Neville's spine arched back, his face tilted up and his mouth gaped wide with a gasp. He could not resist the Imperius curse that Worley was using on him. It seemed he must obey even while some tiny part of him was questioning it was not enough. Lestraithe brought the goblet to his lips and poured it into his mouth. Neville could not even splutter. He drank deeply even though the taste and smell was revolting and even the texture and sticky particles on his tongue and throat were repulsive.

Only when the goblet was drained did Worley release him. Neville felt drained too. He felt defiled. An involuntary shudder brought some feeling and control back to his body. This was followed by a terrible sensation like huge living worms squirming through his stomach and up through his chest. This turned to a burning heat which moved thoughout his body and limbs. Neville felt his flesh writhe and twist and contort like thick boiling, bubbling porridge and he slumped back in the chair. Now he was becoming Bingley; a dead woman. It seemed to him that he was emasculated, defeated.

"Dress him and bring him!" Worley led the way out of the room.

Draco was hurrying. He dragged some dark robes from the holdall and with Lestraithe they quickly threw them over Neville. The two then closed in either side of Neville, grasped him under the arms dragged him out after Worley. Draco did not look at Neville but turned his head away. Neville was temporarily too overcome to resist. It had been done. He had failed utterly, miserably, without a fight.

Neville's collapse into despair was very temporary. As he was frogmarched down the outer corridor he saw something, or rather someone, that, like a slap in the face, made him come to himself, walk more erect, and resume his defiance. The corridor ahead was crossed by several others, all gloomy and lit by low sputtering, smoking wall torches. He could not immediately see who was in the group of presumably Death Eaters that were approaching them from the other direction because they were in deep shadow. But as they came out of that darkness through a patch of dim, flickering light, Neville's heart first almost gave way but then fury took him. He was resolved never, ever, to show weakness to that particular enemy. It was Voldemort himself.

Neville was about to shout his defiance when his two captors swerved him left down another narrow hallway but just as they did so he glimpsed Voldemort and his company also turn a corner further along. He was heading in the same direction. Neville prepared some choice expletives and was almost hoping their paths would cross again shortly. Certainly it seemed they were heading to the same place.

But there had been something odd about Voldemort; something strange about the way he walked that puzzled Neville. His very presence, how he carried himself, just did not fit. And the other figures seemed to be crowding him rather too closely.

As they came out into a dark courtyard, the first cool fresh air he had breathed for far too long, and his first view of the dreadful Dark Marks filling the sky, wakened him to the truth like a cold shower.

Neville's legs gave way. He wanted to yell but all the breath was gone from him in shock. Lestraithe and Draco, fearing some trick to attempt to escape, took his weight and pulled him upright. Lestraithe pointed her wand threateningly. "One more try like that and I'll make you scream alright."

Neville did not scream. He whimpered. He knew now that what he had seen down the corridor was not Voldemort. It was a mirror. The body near which he had lain for the last few days had not been Bingley. It was the decayed remains of the Dark Lord himself. The revolting potion he had been forced to consume had contained his dead flesh.

Two more Death Eaters, real Death Eaters not reflections, approached from Lestraithe's left and joined them but Neville hardly noticed. They walked with them across the courtyard talking softly but excitedly to Lestraithe and Draco.

"Where was this?" asked Lestraithe and the whole group stopped. One of the Death Eaters was pointing vaguely but Neville was not interested. There was something else that interested him far more. He had seen a glimpse of trees, forest. He made a monumental effort to bring himself under control again. He stared around. The courtyard was very dark but Neville could just about discern that it was a square C shape of low, plain, stone buildings and through the opening there was forest. He eyed it as greedily as any condemned man, for such he felt himself to be now, might survey freedom.

"Draco! Take him along. Tell Worley where I've gone," said Lestraithe, then seeing the start of Draco's protests she added, "Just do it! I have to check if it's them don't I! Go!"

Lestraithe hurried off with the two Death Eaters. Draco gripped Neville even more tightly and thrust his wand at Neville's throat. Draco was taking no chances.

"Faster! Walk Faster!" said Draco, digging his wand painfully at Neville's throat and trying to drag him forward with his other hand.

"Can't." muttered Neville and he heard himself speak in a curious, weak high voice that was not his own. This was almost true. Although Neville was dragging his feet intentionally, his stumbling clumsiness in this strange body made it difficult to walk quickly.

Neville weighed up his chances of grabbing the wand. He felt sure he could overpower Draco normally but could he do so in this body and more importantly, could he move fast enough to turn the wand before Draco could utter a curse.

"You can't kill me you know, Draco." said Neville, trying to sound more like Voldemort, trying to play on Draco's fear of the Dark Lord.

"Try me!" said Draco, desperate not to foul up again.

"What will Worley do to you if you did?" It was both a question out of curiosity and also a reminder to Draco he must keep Neville alive.

"Shut it Longbottom. Keep walking."

Neville looked across Draco and tilted his head trying to look around him. "Ah - I'll ask her myself instead."

For less than a couple of seconds, Draco turned his head to look where Neville was looking. In those brief moments, Neville grabbed hold of the wand and tried to push it to one side with all the power he had. But Draco was fast and his grip was tight. As Neville's other hand came up to wrest the wand away, Draco cried, "Confundo!"

At the same moment that Draco tried to curse Neville, Neville's other hand also reached and helped push the wand to one side so the curse glanced upwards across the side of Neville's jaw and past his eye. Draco had been reluctant to let go of Neville's arm so had only the one hand on the wand and it was ripped from his grasp. Neville carried through the same motion and shouldered as heavily as he could into Draco, knocking him off balance and breaking his grip on Neville's arm.

Neville had the wand but he was already getting slightly bewildered by the partial curse. Pure instinct took over. He ran. He could have turned and the now wandless Draco was at his mercy but he didn't. He ran. He ran for the sanctuary of the trees and he kept on running. In his confusion he never noticed that there was no sound of Draco in pursuit. Draco was not about to run wandless into a forest after a confused, angry, and armed wizard - especially one that looked like the fearful Voldemort. Draco's term with the Dark Lord had drained his self-confidence and some of his arrogance. He hesitated. How was he to explain to a furious Worley how he had let Neville escape let alone take his place instead; drink that drink; walk that walk. Draco shuddered. He was close to tears with doubt as to what to do.

Through the darkness Neville ran almost blindly. Though bewildered he did have some sense of direction. He did not know why but somehow he felt he knew the way he should go; felt he knew where safety lay. But trees - the same trees that hid him from his enemies, blocked his pace at every turn. This lowland forest seemed more of a jungle than those on the higher slopes of the valley. Creepers, vines, and huge tangled roots bruised and battered Neville as he tried to thrust forward. He could only see the vaguest shapes and outlines. He had not dared try to light his way but now he felt he must.

"Lufoz! Thoofoz!" He tried to cast a light but his words were distorted by the curse that had creased his jaw. "Thoofoss! Thoofoss!" he cried desperately. He pressed on as best he could. He knew the spell he wanted but he could not voice it. He tried to cast it nonverbally but just as he tried he ran hard headlong into a tree trunk and fell down in a heap, his face starting to bloody.

Up! Up! Get up! He dragged himself up, head spinning with dizziness, clutching at the tree. He dropped Draco's wand and spent over a minute of panic feeling for it in the coarse undergrowth before he found it. He felt his way past the tree and wiped away blood from his eyes to try to see better which way to go.

He turned slightly and proceeded and even in his confused state he wondered how he knew or why he was sure there was hope in this direction. Crash. His shoulder bashed painfully into another tree.

Becoming more and more desperate and angry, Neville instinctively cast the one spell he was so good at casting silently. Bombarda! The tree exploded away from him but as he pushed on he felt sure he heard shouts coming from behind and to one side.

They cannot catch me now! Please don't let them take me again!" Bombarda! Bombarda! Bombarda! Despite his destruction spell giving away his position he panicked and strode forward more and more quickly blasting everything in his path. He was shrieking audibly now too. An inchorent stream of sounds uttered from his lips most of which no longer made sense even to himself. It was the rage of the confused, frightened beast, a one-man stampede.

Behind him were now sounds of pursuers converging towards him and getting louder every few paces. To his right, the sky was just beginning to lighten. Dawn was approaching. Ahead of him, in the dark, Neville's fate awaited him.


Chapter 19: The Dark Manse
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It had been a long night for Luna but sleep's torpor was not necessary nor even possible in the realm of ever-wakeful mind. In the last hour of darkness, Ron directed the young woman to attend to the world of the physical. Deeply relaxed and content from her many hours in the mental world, Luna's brain and body soothed her with over-delayed sleepiness and Ginny guided her down still clothed, to the warm bedroll on the ground close by.

"We've done all we can now," Ron whispered to Ginny once it was clear that Luna had fallen almost immediately asleep. "We can only hope Neville got the idea of how close we are but he certainly wasn't consciously with us."

"We know he's alright anyway - he's still there." Ginny whispered back. Ron nodded. They looked across as two dark figures, one tall, one tiny, slowly passed them yet again on the outside of the little clearing.

Harry and Feya were on watch together, slowly walking around the perimeter of the small campsite and gazing into the dark woodland around them. Occasionally they sat down in one place for a few minutes then resumed their patrol.

Feya had hesitantly proposed that later that day, when they resumed their search for the precise view of the volcano seen in Harry's memory, she might occasionally lift him just above the treetops to see better. To her delight, Harry had become enthusiastic about this idea and was feeling hopeful about resuming their journey when it was light. He looked at his watch then gazed eastwards but the sky would still be completely dark for the next hour even if the black clouds caused by the Dark Marks had not remained there.

Harry gazed upwards. None of the Marks was directly overhead. He wondered if that might be a good portent. It seemed very likely now that Worley would want to direct them away from their real centre of operations. The more he looked around the sky the more convinced he became that where they were now was the furthest point from any of the green skulls that glared down at them. He even thought he could see a few faint stars directly above. He rubbed his eyes. Perhaps it was his imagination. He shook his head and he resumed his patrol with the little elf.

It was almost an hour later that Rolf joined them to relieve Harry and continue with Feya. He convinced Harry that the sky really was now just beginning to lighten in the east though Harry could not yet see it himself. Harry was considering an early breakfast but decided to walk around one more time with the other two.

As they came around to the south side of the encampment, Rolf paused in his stride, staring hard into the forest.

"What is it, Rolf?" asked Harry. He had seen and heard plenty of flickerings and hootings, rustlings, and fireflies during the last few hours and was now more interested in the noises that his stomach was beginning to make.

"Just for a moment I thought I saw a flash of light..." said Rolf. After a while he continued, "Probably I imagined it. I've scarcely woken up yet." But he remained standing where he was as if he did not really believe his own words.

"Get down!" he urged Harry quietly.

Harry dropped to a crouch with Rolf. "I didn't see anything."

"Not seen but I think I heard something far off out there. Perhaps a voice..." Rolf pointed roughly south.

"Again!" whispered Rolf. "It was a shout I'm sure. Someone shouted."

"I still can't hear anything," said Harry.

"It's far away..." Rolf tailed off, not wishing to obscure any faint sound he might hear.

"A light flickered! I saw that one!" said Harry excitedly. "Someone really is there! Should I wake everyone?"

"No wait. It's further than you think. A couple of miles or more. If that's Worley's camp then we need to prepare anyway. No point in spoiling everyone's sleep. We know we should be near anyway."

"I'd have thought they'd have protective spells to hide themselves like we do though?" said Harry.

"Yes, that's strange. Maybe it's one of their patrols outside their boundaries?" said Rolf. "They must be drunk."

"Or over-confident." said Harry. "Oh my... What if they're celebrating something? What if we're too late?"

They waited another ten minutes. Occasionally Rolf reported a faint shout and again once they both saw a light briefly to the south. Harry glanced to the east. Even he could now see that the sky was getting slightly lighter in that direction.

"Do you think we might see their camp once the sun is up?" he asked

"Doubtful. It's so gloomy even at midday with these damn Dark Marks... What was that!" Rolf whispered more loudly.

Both of them now could hears sounds more regularly and the flashes of light were increasing.

"Feya! Wake everybody! Tell them there is someone coming towards us. At least three or four! Hurry!"

Harry had his wand out. Ron and Ginny were already hurrying to his side having heard their raised voices and seen their body language.

"What is it Harry?" gasped Ginny.

"A few Death Eaters we think - heading this way." Harry pointed to where they could clearly now see regular flashes of light and distant explosive sounds. They all could now hear shouting from that direction.

"Not exactly stealthy are they, that lot!" said Ginny. "Are you sure there's only a few of them? Why would just a few attack us so noisily? Maybe there's dozens."

"No - there are four I think," said Rolf. He had his own wand out ready but he was even more apprehensive than the others were. Fighting Death Eaters that were trying to kill you was not something he was trained for or familiar with at all.

"Let them come then!" said Ginny, gripping her wand more tightly.

Harry looked sideways at the young girl he was to marry, at the determined look on her face. He was mighty glad he was not facing her in combat.

"What?" said Ginny, feeling his eyes on her.

"Nothing it's just that... You remind me of your mother."

Bingley was now with them together with Hermione. "Behind the trees everyone," Bingley urged quietly. "They can't see us anyway but the trees give us slight protection and cover should they get past our protective boundary. If not, our spells should divert them sideways then we can swing around behind them and take them by surprise. I don't see how they can know where we are."

"They must know - they're heading right for us!" said Harry hoarsely.

There was no doubt whatsoever. Brighter and brighter flashes of light accompanied by thunderous reports as if trees were being hit by bolts of lightening were getting nearer and nearer. Rolf said he thought he could now see dark figures amidst the flashes. He confirmed there were only four.

"This makes no sense!" said Bingley. "Keep your nerve but we won't wait for them to attack! Get ready to hit them hard at the same time that I do!"

It was at that moment that a rare break in the dark clouds to the east allowed the welcome light of the rising sun to break through and dazzled everyone with a clear view of what approached them. Three Death Eaters led by a shrieking dark hooded figure that everyone recognized: Voldemort. He was blasting his way through the trees quickly and they were all getting nearer very rapidly.

Six wands together hurled their violent magic at the four approaching wizards and the four fell. The leading figure crawled on somehow by sheer willpower. Harry cast another spell and the Dark Lord's wand flew from his grasp yet still he clawed his way forward. He seemed resolved to live on - to cling tenaciously to life, to movement, to consciousness.

Harry ran forward followed by Ron. "Draco you brainless waste of space! When will you lie down! screamed Harry. "Stupefy!"

The figure lay still finally. Face down in the dirt, its hands were fixed motionless, clawed into the earth.

"No! No! No!" It was Luna. She had slept through the start of the onslaught but woken by the noise had now run forward and saw the last fallen. She continued running the last hundred paces to where the figure lay. The others followed, puzzled and concerned, calling her back.

Luna struggled to roll the dark-robed figure over. Rolf reached her and helped. She cradled the hideous, hairless head of the Dark Lord in her lap. Its snake-like face, bruised, battered, and bloodied, stared up at her; saw her hair framing her head like a golden halo in the sunlight. A tear formed silently in one red eye where no tear had ever shed before and it trickled down the pallid grey cheek.

"Is that you, Neville?" Luna asked.

~~~~~~~~~~~~


Neville, back to his normal form, sat, happily tucking into a big plateful of crispy bacon rashers, golden fries, vivid green mushy peas, fried eggs, and whatever else Feya could happily pile on. He broke off regularly to wash down nearly every mouthful with a huge swig from a large mug of hot strong tea which Feya kept topped up.

"So you actually drank water from a flower vase?" grimaced Ron.

"Yeah... And I did wandless silent magic. I really did! Don't know how but I did," Neville sputtered. "And Worley's got Voldemort's body. I practically slept with it! And she's up to something with it..." He tried to stuff another rasher of bacon into his mouth. He was so happy to be back among friends, to be free, he wanted to indulge, to glut himself.

"What's she up to then? What's her plan?" asked Bingley, her voice carrying through a half dozen excited questions from the others.

"Dunno. They were taking me somewhere. It's polyjuice you know. That is so foul! They wanted me to look like Voldemort so there must be someone they want to trick. They were taking me to them. I got a bad feeling I wasn't going to return from... It was dark. I saw trees. I took my chance. I ran for it."

"How'd you find us?" asked Harry.

"Dunno. Just lucky I guess. I just... No, I felt sure this was the right way somehow."

The others looked at one another but said nothing.

"Worley's leg - I got her good." Neville looked up from his feast as he remembered the battle in the forest when he had been taken. "You alright Harry? ... Is everyone alright?"

"We escaped all those Death Eaters in the forest up on the hill - they were not real! We think there might not be that many..." said Harry.

"How many have you seen, Neville?" asked Bingley.

Neville paused, a forkful of fries half way to his mouth. "Not that many actually. There's Worley and Draco and... Lestraithe... and there were a couple or so in the courtyard where I got away from. I didn't really look at them. Then there were those that chased me."

"We got them. She's here," said Ron. "They're not going anywhere - except Azkaban."

"Might have been the ones from the courtyard if they chased after you?" said Bingley.

"Don't think so. I think they all left with Lestraithe."

"As I said, Lestraithe is one of the ones we've got!" said Ron. "She's the cow would have let Ginny die!"

"At least she did save her," said Hermione.

"Yeah - only because they thought she might be useful," snarled Ron. "Only because she was told to."

"So it was them!" said Ginny. "I mean, the ones you saw in the courtyard were the same ones chasing you just now."

"Back at their headquarters - did you hear... What sounds did you hear? Did it sound like there were lots of them? Think Neville. It's important." said Bingley.

"It was silent - but then it was night when they dragged me out into the courtyard." said Neville. "They may have been all asleep." He eyed his plate wistfully as if he had lost his way and wasn't sure how far he'd reached.

"Let the man eat," said Ron.

"How big is their compound?" Worley persisted in her questioning.

"Well, the courtyard - couple of hundreds strides to cross it I guess," said Neville. "The buildings are dark stone - they're low buildings - kind of flat-topped. Hard to see in the dark. They could house hundreds I guess."

"What guards were there? They must have had people on watch, surely?" asked Bingley.

Again Neville paused, steaming mug in hand. "Now you mention it... no. After Lestraithe and the other two left there was only Draco and me in the courtyard. Worley had gone ahead - probably to the right somewhere where we were headed. I dunno. It was dark. There were only a couple of torches in the whole yard I think. I never saw nor heard nobody. I never really thought about it. I just ran out. Nobody challenged me... I bet you're right! There's nobody hardly left. It might even only be Worley and Draco!"

"Draco is going to feel my boot up his backside before we're done." snarled Ron, encouraged and emboldened by the growing feeling that the enemy was small indeed.

"It's clearing," said Rolf.

"What?" said Hermione.

"The sky. The Marks. Look. It's definitely lighter than yesterday."

"I think it's because we're furthest from the Marks here," said Harry. "I was thinking that last night. I could see stars overhead."

"No. I think they are really dispersing. I know my skies." said Rolf.

"She doesn't need them anymore then. She's not maintaining them anymore," said Hermione.

"We're going to have to move soon," said Bingley. "Worley is definitely going ahead with whatever she planned for Neville last night..."

"But with Draco!" exclaimed Neville, dropping his fork and slopping his tea about wildly. Feya was dodging about at his feet. "I heard them say something about him taking my place!"

"What is she up to?" Harry said thoughtfully to everyone in general.

"Well, we're going to find out soon - today!" said Bingley with finality. "Give Luna another hour's sleep and we'll move out."

They looked over to where Luna had gone back to sleep as soon as she knew Neville was alright. The old woman, Cassandra Vablatsky, was now awake and sitting near Luna, quietly drinking tea. Rolf looked startled and moved to go over to them.

"She's harmless I think, Rolf," said Bingley. "Just a bit eccentric. You get that way when you get old. She must be about a hundred."

"Keep an eye on her anyway," said Ron. He muttered something about Chocolate Frog cards and went to get another mug of tea.

~~~~~~~~~~~~


Bingley was pacing up and down, thinking out loud. "What is Worley planning?"

Neville had finished his meal and stood up to stretch his legs too. "She wants to use Voldemort - I mean she wants to convince someone Voldemort's alive - probably get him, whoever is appearing to be Voldemort I mean, to persuade someone - perhaps command someone..."

"So we know there's at least one other Death Eater..." said Ginny.

"Not necessarily a Death Eater," said Harry.

"But she could do that herself. Any of them could. Why'd she need you?" said Bingley to Neville.

"Perhaps Luna might have some ideas..." said Hermione quietly.

Harry grinned at her. "Want to borrow a box?"

"Well... She does get some good brainwaves," conceded Hermione.

"Please, don't wake her. Let her have another hour at least..." said Rolf.

"We might not have another hour!" said Bingley. "Don't you realize? We may already be too late!"

"For what?" said Rolf.

"That's what we don't know!" said Bingley.

"Wait, we might not need... Look, Luna said something before didn't she?" said Harry. "Something like guinea pigs... I mean something about fishing for plimpies. Reel in the bait and cast it again in another part of the river?"

"What's that about ginny pigs? What's that?" asked Ron.

"Believe me, you don't want to know everything that muggles get up to." replied Hermione quietly.

"The travelling curses! They were drawn to their target. Yes, she was experimenting so whoever played Voldemort could be drawn back out of danger if it went wrong then try again," said Ginny.

"But that... Harry would be drawn back to you... Neville would return to Hannah." said Hermione.

"Worley must have thought Luna," said Ginny. "She must have thought Neville would be drawn back to Luna. Neville, she probably didn't know you were now in love with Hannah. She must have been mighty disappointed when Luna wasn't even there and everyone but you and Harry disapparated."

"You all disapparated?" said Neville. "I didn't know that. You just left me and Harry? You abandoned us?" Neville's voice was rising as it sunk in what had happened.

"It was my decision," said Bingley. "It looked like we would all be lost."

"But how could you do that!" Neville was becoming angry. "Don't you know I would never have abandoned any of you!"

"If we had all been lost then everyone in the world might be have been lost - might still be!" said Bingley, her voice rising to match Neville's.

"But..."

"I had to decide in a split second what was best..."

"How the hell do you come to a decision to abandon your comrades! How do you sleep at night?" raged Neville.

"Don't you think I haven't tortured myself with the same question every day since it happened! Do you think it's easy to choose between the obviously noble thing to do and the one that seems cowardly but might be more effective?" Professor Bingley was now almost sobbing as if the burden of some deep wound was being re-opened. "I'm just a writer ... and a teacher ... I'm not a warrior. I've never done anything like this. The responsibility to get you all safely back home terrifies me. Don't you think it hurts me even now when I wonder if I did right? It could have been the wrong thing to do! I had to decide - and decide quickly. I hope and pray you never have to make a decision like that Neville."

"Well I think you're doing a tremendous job, Professor - teacher or not." said Harry quietly. "And anyway, it was me who shouted 'Run' as I recall. I'd hate to think I might have delayed those Death Eaters half a minute only to find you were all still hanging around waiting to be killed."

"It's just that... so much is expected of me. So much taken for granted. Like I must be perfect - never disappoint or I'm condemned," said Bingley, despondently. She seemed very small suddenly.

Neville's anger subsided. He was painfully familiar himself with feeling he used to disappoint his grandmother. He sank down to a crouch, unable to answer. What had seemed simple to him was now frightening to contemplate.

"What about Draco then? Who's he going to return to?" asked Ginny, trying to avoid an unpleasant silence and get them all talking again. She felt teachers were to be respected else hated. To see one emotionally vulnerable was uncomfortable and strange.

"Perhaps she's now only got time for one attempt," said Bingley, making an effort to compose and assert herself again. She was ashamed she had shown weakness when the group more than ever needed a strong leadership. "Likely now she's so desperate she doesn't give a damn."

"Oh. Poor Draco. I feel really sad now," said Ron then added, "Not!"

"However any of you feel about Draco Malfoy, we should take any opportunity to save him to stand trial and not leave him to fate. As far as I know he's not killed anyone," said Bingley. "Agreed?"

There were murmurs of assent - some unenthusiastic. Rolf was continuing to keep an eye on Miss Vablatsky who was still sitting near Luna's sleeping form. It was niggling him. He decided to go over to reassure himself. He knew she wasn't a hag but she was the nearest thing he had seen to one. All wizarding children learned an instinctive fear of those creatures.

He sat down beside her and they were both silent for a time. Rolf gazed down at the young woman he loved, sleeping serenely at his feet.

"She looks nice doesn't she?" the old woman finally spoke.

"Yes, she's..." began Rolf uncertainly.

"Nice and plump and juicy!" the old woman's cackles filled the clearing. Luna slept on, oblivious to everything.

Rolf jumped to his feet. "If you..."

"Sit down. Sit down young man." the old woman insisted - then added, "I've already eaten."

Rolf thought he saw one eye wink at him but her face was so creased and folded he was unsure. He sat down hesitantly and waited in silence again for a time.

"Why did the Death Eaters capture you Miss Vablatsky?" he asked finally.

"Why does anyone seek a prophet?" she sighed deeply as if she had never become accustomed to being sought only for one purpose even after a long lifetime of it, then she continued.

"They wanted, of course, to make me foretell what was to happen and help them unravel the mysteries of the Manse. I managed to convince them I was a fraud. Not too difficult." she giggled hoarsely.

"They don't know?" cried Rolf. "What is the Manse? What does that mean?"

"The Manse is just the name they call that place. I think a certain Lord Voldemort fancied himself sent from above to minister to the world," she cackled uproariously.

"But..."

"He planned to live there with his Death Eaters while the world outside died. The Manse is not just the building you can see above ground. It has depths." Cassandra Vablatsky's eyes drifted dreamily into the distance. "Oh yes, it has depths alright," she muttered. She did not laugh this time.

"But what... What don't they know?"

The old lady stared at Rolf as if she thought it was a foolish question. "Why, how to get in there of course!" Now she did laugh. She cackled and screeched with laughter as she got up and wandered off slowly - away - out among the trees.

"Miss Vablatsky!" cried Rolf after her. "Don't go too far! It's not safe on your own!"

Her voice, getting fainter and fainter, drifted back to him. "Don't worry. Nothing's going to happen to me..." Rolf did not hear her final word: "Yet..."

"Find out anything?" asked Bingley as Rolf returned to the others. She had been watching Rolf's conversation with interest.

"They call that place 'The Manse' and it may be bigger than we think. It has a basement or something I think. She says the Death Eaters don't know how to get in," replied Rolf.

"Ah! His lordship never did trust anyone with all his knowledge. The secret probably died with him," said Bingley.

"So this is what Worley is trying to find out do you think?" asked Harry.

"Undoubtedly," said Bingley.

"Maybe only Voldemort can ever get in," said Ron.

Bingley stared at him. "Of course! Dark curses can be set to keep others out. Or at least, only let them in if he accompanies them."

"What if Draco and Worley do get in though - and get in first? We won't be able to follow them, will we?" said Hermione.

"We'd better move," said Bingley with finality. "Rolf, break camp. Wake Luna. We must all prepare to move out."

"The Death Eaters? Do we leave them where they are?" asked Rolf.

Bingley looked up into a group of trees next to the campsite. Bound magically tight to the tops of the trunks were four unconscious bodies.

"Can you find them again?" she asked.

"Not difficult at all," replied Rolf confidently. "I'll add magical tracers to make certain."

As the others bustled about gathering up equipment, Bingley looked to the sky. The Dark Marks were disappearing. The black clouds had lightened and were breaking up. Birds were beginning once again to sing - though sporadically and uncertainly.

"What about the hag?" asked Ginny.

"Damn!" said Bingley and called out to Rolf. "Rolf, can you track down Miss Vablatsky and bring her back please?" Then more softly, "We can't leave her out here."

"Isn't she old enough to look after herself?" said Ginny. "It's her problem isn't it? We're not her babysitters."

Bingley was about to reply but Rolf called out, "She was headed the same way we're going. Seems she anticipated this move and wants to get a start." He laughed.

"She gives me a start," Ginny said to Harry, "every time I look at the old hag."

Harry grinned. "One day, Miss Weasley, you might look just like her."

"And will you still love me?" smiled Ginny.

"Erm..."

Ginny slapped him on the arm playfully and her pendant flashed through several different primary colours before resettling.

"How far, Neville, you reckon?" Bingley asked. She spoke normally, attempting to include him in the discussions, hoping he would forget the discord that had arisen between them.

"Mmm... Not sure. I wasn't quite myself you know," smiled Neville, also trying to break the tension between them. "Three miles? Four? Five? Just follow the trail of blasted trees."

This was exactly what they did. The forest did not seem quite so dense or daunting as Neville remembered it and most of the scorched, splintered trees they found could have been easily circumvented had he been able to see better the night before. They caught up with the old woman along the way but she insisted they go on ahead. Hermione gave Ron a long stare and he reluctantly offered to accompany Miss Vablatsky and soon they lagged far behind. The rest of them made good time and it was not long before the low, dark buildings of the Death Eater compound were in sight.

As they cautiously entered the courtyard there was still no sign of life whatsoever. Bingley despatched the others in pairs to do quick sorties. She stood in the centre of the courtyard with Feya, looking up at the sky.

"Dark Marks is gone for good, Mrs. Bingley? Feya is most afraid of them," said the house-elf. "Darkness is not good for house-elves."

Anthea Bingley smiled down at the little creature. "What say we put up our own mark then, Feya?"

Bingley gathered herself as if for some collossal task. She cast her wand to the heavens. A brilliant irridescence erupted upwards. Its many spiralling colours swirled and merged and entwined to form a great vertical pillar of pure white luminescence reaching up to the clouds. The dark-stone courtyard, already lit by near-normal daylight, was now cleared of all shadows and almost dazzled the eye.

It was still ugly however. The construction was unimaginative, uncreative, boring blocks of stone. It was square where square would do. It was plain because plain would do. There was nothing attractive to see.

"Professor!" Harry came running back with Ginny. "What are you..."

"No further need for stealth, Harry. Worley knows we're upon her. She knows Neville has escaped. She knows her Death Eaters are gone. The Aurors might be here any day - within the hour perhaps. I want them to know exactly where we are. I just wish we could wait for them."

She cast her owl patronus to send a message to Kingsley one more time then she joined Neville who was indicating the building towards which he felt he was being led the night before. He hardly needed to. It was black. In fact it's stonework was so utterly black it stood out from the grim dark slabs of all the other buildings. Even the brilliant light of the vast column that Bingley had thrown up to the heavens failed to illuminate this building.

"We found Rolf's bag," said Ginny, "but no sign of anyone anywhere." She suddenly looked up and waved. Ron was just entering the compound with the old woman. Everyone started to collect together.

Harry was crouched with one hand in the bag, groping for something. He pulled out his broomstick and examined it carefully. He looked up at Ginny and there was a broad grin on his face. With a holler he was astride it and shot up near-vertically into the air.

"Woohoooo!" he yelled as he flew a few seemingly death-defying circles around the great light column accompanied by loud laughter and applause from all in the courtyard. There was a kind of release, a relief of everyone's spirits from the oppresive burden and worry of the last few days when they had been condemned to furtiveness and groping in the dark. It was as if they had passed a turning point; that they had climbed over a dreadful peak and all the rest was downhill; that they were almost at their final destination. How wrong people can be. How very wrong.




Author's Notes



Comments and reviews are welcome and very encouraging. Thank you.
:)
 

- Hippothestrowl




Chapter 20: The Black Strangeness
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The house-elf squirmed, wriggled, and squeaked in distress as she clung tenaciously to Luna's left leg. Finally she twisted herself away and began beating on the ground with her tiny fists. Her sobs were light but pulled heavily at most everyone's heart.

"What is it, Feya?" asked Luna, kneeling beside the elf. "Tell me what's wrong."

Rolf had simply instructed Feya to return home now that her help in apparating them across the valley was over. He had never known her disobey a direct order before.

"Feya must go, Miss Luna! Feya cannot go, Miss Luna! Must go. Must! Cannot! Cannot!"

"Rolf, I don't think she can go! Please... Can you reverse what you said - tell her to remain? There's something wrong," said Luna quietly, looking up at Rolf who was standing to one side appearing both puzzled and astonished.

"But she's played her part here - and she'll be needed at home. More importantly, I do not want to expose her to further unnecessary danger..."

"Rolf, please," implored Luna.

"Of course. I'm sorry. I just didn't... Feya, You must remain with us. But tell me why you would not do what I told you."

For one second only Feya stopped wailing her distress and her body relaxed on the ground only to begin anew as she digested the whole of her master's instructions.

Rolf threw up his hands in exasperation. "What am I to do? I don't understand why she..."

"Rolf, please tell Feya she does not need to explain," said Luna.

"What!" Rolf turned around on the spot in frustration. He was not a harsh man but he had spent a lifetime accustomed to directing servants so now he felt off-balance. His instinct was to restore the equilibrium - to bring his world back to normal. But he did not wish to refuse Luna. He relented.

"Feya - you do not need to explain - just remain with us. But... but nothing." He walked off - not exactly in a huff but his feathers somewhat ruffled. He had a few things to prepare and resigned himself to never being able to understand certain of the great mysteries of life - house-elves, women, and, of course, death and taxes.

Luna took the tearful Feya's hand, helped her up, and walked her away from the others for a while. She did not question her but gave her time to get over her upset. After a while the elf spoke - very quietly even though they were well away from everyone else.

"Feya is a disgrace to the great House of Scamander," whispered Feya mournfully, "but Seraphina sent Feya to help."

"I know Feya. I understand. But you have already helped us enormously. I think that's what Seraphina would have wanted, don't you? We don't know what's ahead. Rolf doesn't want you to come to harm - Nor do I - especially when it's not necessary." said Luna.

The elf remained silent. They walked on for a while.

"It's something else isn't it?" said Luna.

"Feya does not know," the elf said sadly. "Seraphina tells Feya she is to help."

"You still feel there is something you must do?"

"Yes, Miss Luna. Feya must do something. But Feya does not know. Feya is frightened," said the elf miserably.

"It's alright. I will be with you. I will protect you if I can," said Luna, stopping and crouching down to face the little creature.

Feya flung her arms around Luna's neck and held on tight. Luna picked her up and carried her back like a little baby. Sometimes it was hard for her to remember that Feya was a fully grown house-elf.

~~~~~~~~~~~~


The ribs of the great bronze gate creaked and groaned but the barrier held. Bingley was applying her strongest spells to try to quickly force her way into the strange black-slabbed building but finally had to resign herself to countering the many wards the long way. She slowly traced each one magically with her wand then tested various counter-spells to discover which would be effective. It was relatively simple for her expert eye yet success came tediously slow. What lay beyond the gate was more difficult.

As the small group tentatively entered the curious atmosphere of the building they were engulfed by its almost tangible velvety blackness. The cold hard stone reflected no light at all from floor, wall, or ceiling. Their wand lights achieved nothing except to illuminate their own apprehensive white faces. Harry led the way with Ginny at his side. They were only just at the head of the group as they were all keeping very close to each other - some with hands on others' shoulders or arms, some hand-in-hand. Not one of them wished to be even slightly separated from the rest in this forbidding darkness. Ron, Hermione, Rolf, and Luna with Feya clinging to her arm, were all at the rear. In the middle was Bingley, Miss Vablatsky, and Neville.

Their steps had almost immediately become hesitant and now were barely half-steps, shuffling along, keeping with Harry's pace. Harry was completely blind to what was even one step ahead in the blackness: a pit? a chasm? a dark creature?

"Ouch!" So slowly had they all been moving that they did not even collide with each other as they were forced to an abrupt halt behind Harry.

"What is it, Harry?" asked Bingley quietly from the middle of the pack.

"Wall. Dead end," said Harry, rubbing his head.

They could see his wandlight and the side of his anxious face now moving to the left with Ginny in tow and they moved sideways with him. He was feeling his way along only to come to another halt.

"I'm in a corner." said Harry.

There were minor groans from some of them but these were diluted by apprehension to little more than gasps.

Ginny's light was now leading Harry's back to the right again. They could hear the toe of her trainer kicking gently on stone as if she were confirming the solidity of the wall or floor as she went along. The sound was comforting, something to relate to when vision was reduced to almost nothing at all. Without touch and sound they might as well have been in a void.

"The entrance is gone!" exclaimed Ron, who's silhouetted head indicated his wandlight was behind it and he was looking back the way they had come in.

There were soft mutterings but Rolf explained, "Don't worry. We've moved sideways into another corridor. Just can't see the entrance anymore." He was holding his enchanted compass up to his wandlight and trying to make notes of tiny distances with his magi-scalar. After a short time he spoke again.

"This is ridiculous. We can't keep going at this pace," he said. Rolf was as much out of his element here as everyone else. "There could be miles of corridors and it's already taken us nearly fifteen minutes to move less than eighty yards."

"Might we send more lights forwards perhaps," suggested Luna at his side but she was speaking to everyone.

"No matter how many lights we use, they won't illuminate these corridors," said Bingley. "This stone just does not reflect any light at all."

"No, but we can see the lights themselves," smiled Luna. "Something to cheer the place up a little don't you think? It will be like Christmas."

Rolf and a few others smiled at the idea that Luna could imagine anything cheering up this dead black featureless space.

Bingley began casting a light charm. She spun it somehow from the end of her wand in a long thread of tiny glowing coloured spheres that slowly expanded and extended as they sailed away, stringing themselves out down the corridor wall and around yet another corner ahead of them.

"Merry Christmas, Luna," laughed Harry.

"Don't look very Chrismassy to me," said Ron."They look bizarre here, like stars in the sky."

"They show where the walls are though," said Neville.

"It's like navigating by the constellations," said Rolf.

"It's like navigating through the constellations," said Hermione. "Flagrate!"

She drew with her wand against the nearest wall and a fiery arrow appeared upon it, pointing back the way they had come. She did another on the floor at her feet and then another close by.

"Good thinking, Hermione!" said Harry.

"I'm not sure they will last though - but at least we have something else to align to even if it's temporary," replied Hermione.

"So long as there are no alternate turn-offs we should have no trouble returning. We can cast these charms on the way back in the same way." Rolf sounded much happier now he had something tangible by which to orient himself.

Soon they were all casting the Flagrate charm. Luna was drawing rabbits and fishes and various magical creatures and quickly every wall and floor had some luminous sign at least every ten or twenty paces. Together with the light strings they gave a little shape to their blank environment and immediately they began to make better progress. They were also helped slightly because it became apparent that all the corridors sloped downwards, deeper and deeper. It was obvious which way was forward should anyone get turned around accidentally. But as they rounded what was perhaps the sixth corner something stopped them dead in their tracks.

This new corridor sloped downwards like all the rest. Just ahead was a large wrought-silver gate blocking the way. It's shining surfaces were very ornate with intricate patterns in slender threads of open metalwork. Beyond and through that, way ahead down this very long corridor, incandescent green light hugged the walls next to another identical gate. It was not difficult to guess that the dark figure eerily lit by that cool luminosity, was responsible for the light enchantment.

"Draco!" shouted Harry starting to run forward. "You won't get away this time!"

"Keep back. You cannot stop me." It was Voldemort's voice, cold and menacing as ever but somewhat changed.

Almost before the words were ended, Harry came to the first silver gate and found it unopenable. Although its metalwork was slender, Harry could feel the gate was immoveable and unshakeable. It might as well have been solid steel. The others soon joined him.

"Barrier," said Hermione breathlessly, feeling around the gate before them with one hand and a charm from the wand in the other. "Protective spells. Wards."

"He won't give up - he can't," said Bingley as she started to investigate the wards that blocked their way. "It's the imperius curse. He barely knows what he's doing. I recognize Worley's manner and her method."

"I thought they'd be together." said Hermione, gazing down to where the figure of Voldemort appeared to be struggling to get the farthest silver gate to open.

"No, she's safe somewhere, letting others do her dirty work," said Bingley.

"She's still out there? Outside? She's escaped us?" cried Neville.

"Not much we can do about it. The valley is a big place. No doubt she will show her face again if Draco succeeds in getting in. Or indeed, if he fails."

For another thirty minutes, Bingley struggled in vain to find a way to break the barrier that blocked their way. Her incantations were often strangely congruent with Voldemort's voice in the distance as Draco also was attempting to break through the wards on his silver gate.

"How long do you think he's been down here working on that?" asked Ron. "How'd he get past this one?"

"I think Worley was down here last night..." said Neville.

"She must have been trying to break through for days or else why would she not have done it earlier?" said Hermione.

"Quickly, Professor!" cried Harry. " He's stopped. I think he's about to open it."

Bingley worked furiously but she could not advance any faster than she was doing. Every spell had to be traced and countered in sequence.

It was strange for Harry, looking down at the menacing figure of Voldemort and trying to remember that it was only Draco looking back at him.

"Hang on a minute - he's just standing there. What's he waiting for?"

"For us, dearie." Cassandra Vablatsky's voice sounded resigned, even bored. Like someone who knew the next bus would not be for hours but the children were restless. She was sitting on the floor weaving something with her wand. It looked suspiciously like black knitting but she had no wandlight so it was too dark to see what it was from the gloom of others' lights. Perhaps it was just transparent - or even invisible.

"Ingenious!" said Bingley. "These wards are doubled!"

"Ah - Worley knows all about those," said Harry.

"No, not just two wards - this barrier is somehow mated to the one down there at the gate. They know each other. It's a staller. If I'm right then I think you have to open the first but when you start on the second it re-seals the first. Once the second one is released it won't open immediately. You need to re-release the first again, this one, before the second will finally open."

"So Draco has to come back here and open this one again before he can get through that one?" said Ron. "We've got him!"

"Sadly no. He need only wait for us to open this one which then automatically opens the one down there now he's released it. Once he's through it seals itself again."

"So... We just wait him out for a few days. We can go back for supplies. The Aurors will be here soon. I wonder how much food he's got?" said Ron.

"And can we afford to leave the world curse to chance for that time?" asked Bingley.

"But we can't just release him to go on while we cannot!" said Hermione.

"I can't think of any other way," said Bingley.

"There is no other way," cackled the old lady from the floor as her hands flashed around in an endlessly-repeating pattern. "This gate will never open now before that one. Only then will this gate open. Ten thousand Aurors cannot change that. And if you wait... many will perish."

"What do you know about that? What do you know about the world curse?" asked Harry.

"Nothing. Absolutely nothing. I cannot see anything beyond my own life," answered the old witch.

"But you just said that many will perish..." said Harry.

"The many who vainly hope to come to your aid." Miss Vablatsky's hands and wand paused, then moved faster and faster.

Hermione could not resist her curiosity any longer. "Excuse me, erm... Miss Vablatsky, is that... invisible?"

"Is what invisible?" The old lady broke out into a loud sequence of harsh cackles that made Hermione step back startled. The noise passed up and down the corridors and returned to add to the racket. Hermione decided not to press her query further and moved slowly away.

"When did he get so smart?" said Ron, still staring down towards Draco.

"It's not his skill - Worley is controlling him. There's little she doesn't know about countering dark curses," said Bingley.

"Well, dunno about food but he's got something to drink at least," said Ron. "We may be here for a while."

Bingley looked up and through the gate she was working on. "Drink you say? I wonder if he's topping up with Polyjuice potion? That makes sense."

Neville came closer and peered down too. He did not feel sorry for Draco but he certainly did not envy him having to drink that particular drink every hour. Once was once too often for Neville.

The old lady stood up to stretch her legs. She pulled her robes more tightly around her middle and joined Neville to stare down towards the figure of Voldemort.

Bingley considered for a while then shrugged and resumed her task of trying to counter the wards on the gate and almost immediately was rewarded with a loud click. The gate began to swing open.

Like a flash, Harry was almost pushing Bingley to one side and sprinting through, wand in hand.

"Careful, Harry," called Bingley, but she need not have worried. Draco was through the far gate and long before Harry reached it, the gate had closed again. He slammed the flat of his hand against the gate. Through the gate he saw a flash of green along the walls that quickly faded and disappeared to one side. Draco was nowhere in sight in the blackness beyond - no doubt already around an unseen corner.

"So what now? We have to get this one open and then?" Harry asked as the others caught him up at the second gate.

"We release this one but it will not open. Then we go back to the other gate, open that again - then this gate will open again."

"But that will take ages!" protested Harry.

"Not as long as you think. I now know the sequence on that first gate and I'm fairly confident this gate will be identical to its twin," said Bingley.

"How come you got through so quickly if Worley has been here days and couldn't get through?" Harry asked Bingley.

The old woman had taken up a new position again sitting on the floor near the second gate. She spoke with surprise in her voice. "Why, these gates are the simplest part of what lies ahead! Miss Worley has passed them many times. It's what comes after that is the difficulty." The old woman refrained from laughing.

"I wish you'd tell us something," grumbled Ron. "It would save us a lot of bother. What's down there? At the end I mean?"

"Ah! For many years I have sought to know that. Much would I give to..."

"Miss Vablatsky, we make it don't we?" said Hermione. "I mean... you're here... Why would you be here if it was all for nothing."

"Ah, my dear. Those who are to live I will not say. Those who are to perish I durst not say. Everything must unfold as it should. We each must play our part." The old woman lapsed into silence. She was now not even knitting but sitting thoughtfully gazing at Luna who was happily drawing plimpies and unicorns and other exotic creatures all over the floor. Rolf felt uneasy. He did not like the way the old witch was looking at the girl he loved.

Bingley soon had the second gate released and everyone except the old lady began walking back up to the first gate.

"Cheerful old soul isn't she?" muttered Ron, far enough away so she would not hear him.

"What is this stone?" asked Neville, trying to peer closely at the wall surface but his eyes found nothing to focus on.

They had reached the first gate and Bingley was already at work releasing it a second time.

"It's not stone," said Rolf. "At least, not any kind of natural stone that I know of." He started to reminisce.

"When I was a tiny tot I spent hours looking at all the pictures in my mother's geology books. That's almost where I learnt to read - to try to find out what each rock was. Then I moved on to the magical creatures in my grandfather's books." Rolf had a faraway look in his eyes as he warmed to his favourite subject. He was about to continue.

"Then what is it then?" interrupted Ginny loudly and rather rudely. Her voice echoed down the corridors and came back faintly a few seconds later.

"Probably something unnatural that alchemists made," said Bingley, waving her wand confidently now along the edge of the silver gate. Apart from themselves and their lights, the gates were the only thing visible against the blackness and they gleamed and glittered and shimmered in high contrast as they reflected the illumination from all of the charms.

Hermione pushed her arms deep into her bag, groping through her books. "Oops! Sorry!"

"What? What did you say?" asked Ron.

"I said sorry - it will take me a while to find it." said Hermione. "I packed everything and anything I thought might be useful of course."

Eventually she exultantly pulled out a massive volume of Ancient Alchemy and began to tease at it with her wand as they continued to wait for Bingley to release the upper gate.

"What's that you're doing Hermione?" asked Ron.

"This? Oh it's a sort of index charm - something like accio but for finding entries in books. It doesn't always understand what you want though. Still, it's often useful."

"Coco fuliginis," said Hermione finally as Bingley gave a satisfying nod to indicate she was progressing well. "coco fuliginis, or solid soot, is a totally black, non-combustible, magical substance created and used by ancient alchemists in their..."

Hermione closed the book and turned away from the others, clearly distressed.

"What is it, Hermione?" asked Ron. "In their... what?"

"Furnaces. In their furnaces and kilns... in the..." again Hermione paused, not looking at the others. "In the hottest parts of their furnaces and kilns."

Hermione turned back to look at the others. "We must go back. Don't you see? These are not corridors. We're in a gigantic flue! Nothing can survive in here. As soon as you get that gate open we should go back." She turned to Bingley for her approval.

"We can't go back, Hermione, can we? We have to see this through," said Harry quietly.

"But I..." She looked back down the long corridor to the old woman still sitting near the next gate. Hermione began to walk down then she started to run. Ron ran after her and so did Harry.

"Miss Vablatsky! Please! You must tell us. It's fire isn't it? Do we burn? You meant just the few of us are to perish instead of many? Please tell us! It cannot make any difference to the future surely if we fail by burning or fail by going back. I don't want to die for nothing... Please don't let it be by burning."

"I cannot say," said the old woman. For once, there was some sympathy in her voice as she looked at Hermione.

"Cannot or will not?" cried Hermione, getting more and more distressed.

"I will not say," said the old lady with finality.

"Will not? Will not?" Hermione was atop a narrow wall between anger and terror and not sure which way she would fall.

"It's me isn't it?" Hermione said finally. "It's me that's to burn. That's why you won't tell me."

Hermione turned away very upset now. Tears were spilling down her face. Ron put his arm around her shoulders. "We don't know anything. We don't know what's going to happen. You don't believe in that stuff anyway," was all he could think to say.

"Please don't let me burn. I... think I can face death but not that way... not that way. Not after what happened at Hogwarts... I didn't tell you, Ron. I saw Crabbe... I saw him die, Ron. It was... He..."

"Take her out, Ron," said Harry. "Come back if you will... If you want to... But take Hermione out." Ron nodded.

Hermione saw the look on the faces of her friends and misunderstood it. Shame flooded her thoughts.

"No! I won't leave you! I've proven my loyalty... I've proven my courage..." Hermione faltered. "Haven't I? It's just that burning..." Hermione choked off at the end.

"Don't talk that way. You've proven your courage zillions of times." Ron started to lead Hermione back up the slope to the first gate. As they did so, there was a loud click and the second gate swung open. Instantly, Harry turned from watching Ron and Hermione depart and dashed through the gate. Hermione stopped and turned back. "Harry no! Please don't go down there! You'll never get out in time! Don't rush into it. Think it through!"

Harry slowed then stopped. He could see nothing but blackness. He walked slowly back, thinking hard.

"Rolf! Your bag!" said Harry.

Bingley and the others had now rejoined them.

"My broom! My Firebolt!"

"It won't be fast enough, Harry," said Luna. "It might not even work down there. Travelling curses - remember? Something to draw us out quickly where local magic will not work. That's what Professor Worley had been trying to solve. She'd have used a broomstick herself if that was all that's needed."

Rolf handed Harry his broom with some reluctance.

Harry stared at Luna. "I have to try... We can't stay here... Just me then. You all go back up to..." He stared up the slope. The first gate was closed.

"Professor? Tell me again. How would you get that first gate open?" said Harry.

"Same as this one. I'd have to go back, release it which would close this gate. Then I would have to come back to this gate again to open the first one again."

"Can we wedge this gate open?"

The old lady, still sitting on the floor, cackled loudly. "You cannot cheat your fate!"

Ron snapped at her. "Shut it! Just shut it! If you can't help just keep your mouth shut!"

"I notice she's not going down there is she!" said Ginny suddenly. She spoke as if the old woman was not there - or as if she did not care if she heard. "She's always ahead of everybody - always anticipates where to be... But she's not quick to continue down past this second gate now it's open..."

Everyone stared at the old woman who just sat quietly.

Harry ran his hand through his hair in despair.

"Please don't, Harry," pleaded Hermione.

"Hermione! Stop it please! It's hard enough to think..." said Harry.

He paced up and down. "I'm going down there. Draco is down there. You lot all go back as far as you can. Get that upper gate open ready to run..."

"But this gate will close - you'll be trapped." cried Ginny.

"I'll manage somehow. No point in all of us..."

"No! I'm coming with you!" cried Ginny. "Rolf! My broom!"

"No Ginny! I said No!"

"I'm coming. You can't stop me!"

"No Ginny! Ron! Ron! Grab your bloody sister and drag her up there will you!" shouted Harry.

"You can't tell me what to do Harry Potter!" screamed Ginny, fighting at Ron who had grabbed hold of her arm and started to pull her back up the slope.

"Professor! It's up to you to get everyone as safe as you can. I'm going down here and that's flat." Harry turned and strode quickly down past the second gate again. He slowed, raised his wandlight, felt tentatively for the wall, and sat astride his Firebolt. Bingley cast a new thread of lights and swept them past Harry to give him a guide down the corridors ahead of him. Harry glanced back thankfully - then he was gone.

Everyone stared for a few seconds in shock at the empty blackness where Harry had been - then Bingley turned and hustled everyone back up the slope towards the first gate. All except two.

Luna sat down quietly with the old lady who by now was knitting nothing again.

"That must be very relaxing I should think," said Luna. "I suppose I might try."

~~~~~~~~~~~~


Less than halfway back up to the first slope, Rolf had realized that Luna was absent and had reluctantly made his way back down to her, accompanied by Feya. He knew better than to argue with Luna; he had no confidence in what was best at this point anyway.

Ron had taken Ginny's broom and had one hand on her arm as they walked. Ginny kicked the broom and Ron nearly dropped it. As he adjusted his hold on it his grip on Ginny lessened slightly and she broke free. Ron turned to grab her as she went but missed. She trounced down the slope, waving her arms as if to shrug off anything that might hold her back. Ron and Hermione stopped on the slope looking down at her then slowly began to follow her.

"Wait till Mum hears about this, Ginny!" Ron called.

"Yeah - like I care!" Ginny retorted, then after a few seconds thought, "So you think I'll still be around for Mum to scold me so what you worried about anyway!"

Neville indicated to Bingley that they were all now strung out along the corridor. Bingley sighed. She looked up at the closed gate. She looked down at the open gate. She looked at the seer, sitting there by the open gate as if without a worry in the world. She weighed in the balance her responsibilities to the young people in her care. She considered to what degree they would obey her. She pondered how doubtful she felt about which was the best course of action anyway. Bingley pictured the higher gate open and the lower closed and who might be on one side or another she could not be sure. She sighed again then started slowly back down, with Neville following. She stopped twice more on the way down then resumed. The painful struggle taking place within her showed on her face.

They all waited quietly, not speaking, near the old woman. Luna was sitting on the floor with her wand in hand. Occasionally she would move it in a rythmic pattern then pause again, watching the old woman's hands move. Hermione was highest up the slope with Ron next to her. She was turned sideways, one leg braced as if she were about to start a race. Ginny was hovering about the open gate, looking beyond. She started to sniffle. Eventually she broke away and went down through the gate, raising her wand light.

Bingley was about to call her back but Ginny called back first. "I'm just going to this corner..."

Nobody spoke after that. There was absolute silence. Suddenly the old woman stopped knitting. Hermione's bushy hair wafted slightly as there was a slight rush of air and an odd smell. It reminded her of a London Underground platform as a train approached, pushing the air ahead of it like a piston in a cylinder.

Rolf thought he heard something from way down the winding corridor. A few seconds later there was no doubt.

Harry's screams were very faint in the distance but getting louder and louder as he drew nearer. "Run! Run! Run!"

"Everybody! Go! Go! Go!" Bingley urged, pushing some of them to movement - to turn and run back up the slope.

"Ginny, no!" shrieked Hermione. In the moment of turning she had seen Ginny's reluctance to leave. She could not bear to think of Ginny looking like Crabbe as he died. On impulse, Hermione ran down past the gate, grabbed Ginny and tried to pull her back.

There was a terrible orange glow down the corridor. Even around the bend it was visible. It was if the air itself was becoming incandescent. And it was getting brighter.

"Fiendfyre! Fiendfyre!" Harry's screams echoed from what still seemed a long way away.

A great wave of scorching air hit Hermione and Ginny who, both now feeling the reality of what was coming inexorably towards them, turned and ran, pulling each other along. Ginny was sobbing and wailing, overwhelmed by terror and anguish. Ahead of them, through the silver gateway, they saw Luna, large bright eyes staring towards them. At that moment, her long blond hair was suddenly blasted back hard, fluttering furiously like a ragged golden flag in a gale, as the hot air reached her, passed her, and she put an arm protectively around Feya, pulling her close, shielding her half behind her, then closed her eyes.

Harry came hurtling abruptly around the last bend behind them. He saw two figures lagging behind the others. Seeing Ginny, he swooped, slowed to gather her in his arms but then recognizing Hermione too, he despaired of saving them both. He fumbled his catch and the three of them crashed forward along the ground towards the lower silver gate.

The great red and orange glow reached the corner behind them. Terrible serpent flames, the maws of hideous fire creatures, showed momentarily but then faded back as if disappointed at the blackness of the corner. They were exhausted from lack of seeing anything more to devour in the blind, sterile corridors.

The three on the floor picked themselves up and gazed back, hardly able to believe their luck. Harry visualized hundreds of Aurors spaced out along these corridors - probably one would have been posted at every corner. They would all have been consumed - all the way back to the surface. He looked up towards Cassandra Vablatsky. The old woman had resumed her knitting.

"Hello again, Harry," said a flush-faced Luna as she tried to smooth her hair back down with one hand. "That was rather close."

~~~~~~~~~~~~


"You knew this would happen didn't you!" shouted Hermione at the old woman. "Why didn't you tell us! Why didn't you just tell us! Harry could have..."

"But then you would not have overcome your worst terror, would you, Miss Granger?" said the old lady quietly. "Miss Weasley would not have learned just how much her sister loves her. Mr. Potter would not have learned exactly what is down there. More importantly, Miss Lovegood would not have learned to knit."

Everyone stared at everyone else. In particular, everyone stared at Ron and Hermione who both smiled rather sheepishly. Ginny rushed forward to embrace Hermione, "Why didn't you say?"

Hermione turned again to the old woman. "So we do survive! Ron and me I mean. We must if we are to be... married." Hermione had a big triumphant grin on her face.

Cassandra Vablatsky gave out a long sigh. "You will never learn to interpret the signs, my dear. They've shown me only what is already true in your heart."

"But it was all for nothing - it was," insisted Harry. "I only saw it from a distance but it looked like the fiendfyre swarms up from a huge grating in the floor. It must be waiting - standing guard against any that try to pass. It will only let Voldemort by - Voldemort and anyone with him." Harry stood with the others near the lower silver gate wondering what they were to do next.

"Draco faced the fiendfyre as if he were really Voldemort but he was only the appearance of Voldemort. Worley got it wrong. She should have known a dark curse would not be fooled by polyjuice potion. Only Voldemort himself could ever have got by and he's dead. Nobody else can ever get by." Harry shook his head.

"The place is impassably sealed then," said Bingley. "It's not unknown. There are places like this - with impassable curses I mean. I only know of two wizards this century who could control fiendfyre - Voldemort and Dumbledore. It takes a lifetime to learn - and a powerful wizard to learn it."

"So... Draco?" asked Hermione tentatively.

"Draco held up his arms as if to hold back the fire monsters that threatened him. Or rather Worley made him do it... He was... engulfed, eaten alive by the flames - then they saw me..." Harry broke off, the image of what he had witnessed still fresh in his memory but only now sinking in as he related it to the others.

Hermione turned her face away.

"He was always mean to me," said Luna suddenly. "He said cruel, spiteful things. But he was just ignorant, misguided not absolutely evil like Lord Voldemort. If he'd had a caring mum and dad then perhaps he..."

"Oh, let's all feel sorry for Draco!" said Ron automatically railing against the one he had hated for so long but he quickly lapsed into silence as it dawned on him ... his enemy was no more.



Author's Notes



Comments and reviews are welcome and very encouraging. Thank you.
:)
 

- Hippothestrowl




Chapter 21: Return
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The sense of failure weighed heavily on everyone and their mood was as black as the walls that surrounded them. There was nothing that anyone wanted more than to get out of the dark building as fast as possible into the light of day - yet they still had to wait for the top silver gate to be re-opened. So, reluctantly, while they waited for Professor Bingley accompanied by Neville to release the staller gates in sequence again, they pitched down and Feya improvised a meal for them all. Rolf, Feya, and Luna were sitting with the old woman. Harry, Ginny, Ron, and Hermione were together a little further up the slope.

"I'm sorry about what happened," said Hermione hesitantly. "I lost my nerve. I don't have your courage, Ron..."

"No courage? Hermione Granger? Not much!" said Ron. "Listen, your the bravest, cleverest girl I ever met but everybody has their weaknesses..."

"Yeah, like spiders," smirked Ginny.

"Yes, but Ron still went to their cave in the Forbidden Forest despite his fears," said Hermione defensively as she bit into a cold beef sandwich.

"And you risked your life to try to help Ginny just now," said Ron. "Don't ever forget that."

"This place gives me the shudders, though. I'll be glad to get out," said Hermione.

"Well at least you got a betrothal out of it." smiled Ginny.

"That wasn't here. That was ages ago," said Hermione without thinking.

"What! Why the big secret then?" asked Ginny, looking back and forth between Ron and Hermione.

"It's still informal - just between the two of us. We're still at school remember?" said Hermione. She was trying to be protective of Ron but he said something about stretching his legs and he took his sandwich plate and mug of tea and wandered down to sit with Luna.

"Ron and I didn't want it to be announced - yet," whispered Hermione, glancing after Ron. "It's just a... We've just agreed we'll get married one day so it's not yet an official engagement. We've got our studies to do. Then get a job..."

"This was Ron's idea wasn't it?" said Ginny in a low voice, looking at Harry, who had remained silent through the whole conversation. He had a mouthful of pork pie so he couldn't speak. He shook his head and opened his eyes wide as if to say Don't drag me into it.

"No, it was my idea actually," said Hermione quietly. "We just..."

"Yes but..."

"Look, Ginny, let's talk about something else," said Hermione. "Ron and I, we've discussed it privately and agreed one day we'll be married, that's all. It's just between us so don't talk about it to anyone else - especially your family." She also looked at Harry when she said this but he just raised his eyebrows and continued eating.

"You're not scared he'll back out of it?" asked Ginny.

"No!" said Hermione in a hoarse whisper.

"What did he actually say?" asked Ginny.

"What we talked about was only between us two and I'll never betray Ron's trust," said Hermione, flushing slightly with annoyance.

"He didn't want to trap himself did he? - by making it public," said Ginny quietly.

"Ginny! Please." whispered Hermione.

"Alright. Just saying..."

"All you need know is what you already know. He has made a commitment. His promise is everything to me..." Hermione's eyes started to shine. She felt uncomfortable that she had to defend the validity of her unspoken betrothal; as if it were worthless. It was not the grand, formal, publically-announced engagement she would have wanted but it was everything to her. The implication that it was somehow inferior to others' engagements - to Harry and Ginny's, hurt her feelings.

Harry gave Ginny a hard stare to warn her off. Ginny suddenly realized what Hermione was thinking and felt mean. "Hermione, I'm sorry! I'm not suggesting... Hermione, Ron won't ever let you down, I know that. We've had our quarrels, him and me, but he's always been there for me when it mattered. It's just he's such a... blockhead at times. A good one though."

She grinned at Hermione and the tension was released. The girls laughed together and Harry choked on his pork pie. A little further down the slope, Luna seemed to be laughing too.

~~~~~~~~~~~~


"Luna, this is the daftest thing you've done." said Ron, but he said it warmly.

Luna continued knitting silently.

"She's a complete nutter," he added, tilting his head towards the old woman. "You do realize she's not actually knitting anything?"

"Just because you can't see nothing doesn't mean it doesn't exist," smiled Luna serenely, continuing to knit away.

"Can you see it?" asked Ron hesitantly.

"See what?" Luna laughed long and hard. She laughed so long and so hard that soon there were tears in her eyes and she dropped her wand. When she picked it up she also pretended to pick up her knitting. Still laughing loudly, she mimed holding up nothing to Ron then mimed wrapping it around herself like a shawl. "That was so funny!"

At the same moment Ron heard Harry, Hermione, and Ginny laughing too. It seemed like everybody was laughing at him. Luna making out he was an idiot. Hermione chatting about his private emotions and laughing about them.

"You taking the mickey or what?" growled Ron at Luna. He grabbed a plate of jam and lemon curd tarts and stalked off up the slope to see how Professor Bingley was getting on with the upper gate. He had only just reached her when she succeeded in releasing the gate so they walked back together with Neville who stealthily and silently hovered a couple of strawberry tarts from Ron's plate. The lower gate had now closed so that had to be released yet again before the upper gate would actually open.

"So this is really it, then?" said Ron bitterly. "We're just giving up?"

"What else can we do?" said Neville, munching his sweet pastries.

"I was wondering," said Ron, "suppose we just raced past on broomsticks..."

"Harry barely escaped with his life," said Bingley.

"Yeah, but he did escape!" said Ron. "What if instead he had continued on the other side of the fire instead of coming back?"

"Better ask him..." They had reached the others again so Bingley put it to Harry.

"Harry, what was on the other side, beyond the fire grid?" said Bingley. She asked the question but continued past to start work on the lower gate wards.

"Nothing... erm... Just a wall, a dead end - no there was a doorway or something." Harry was thinking deeply. "Look, I didn't exactly have time to study it did I?"

"What if you had just shot past on your broom?" said Ron. "Surely you'd have made it just the same as getting back here." Ron was still annoyed at them talking about his private agreement with Hermione.

"No chance."

"Why, not?" said Ron abruptly.

"My broom slowed down as I got nearer. I don't think it would have flown at all if I had been close. I was still quite a way off when the fire erupted. This is probably why these corridors are so long and winding and there are these staller gates. It channels the fire and there's no chance of getting out quickly from close to the fire grid."

"I'm sure most magic won't work locally there, Ron, "said Luna, patiently explaining it all again. "Broomsticks, apparation, portkeys. I doubt anything would work. That's why Bingley wanted some external magic to draw back her... test subjects - like Draco and Neville - all of you if you hadn't escaped in the pass."

"Voldemort was really sick in the head," said Ron. He slammed his hand angrily against the now-closed lower gate. "He didn't just want to stop people getting in did he? No that wasn't good enough for him. Trap and kill anyone what tries is what he wanted."

There was a loud click as Bingley released the lower gate wards and the upper gate swung open.

"Sorry - but we must all now return to Hogwarts," said Bingley. "If Kingsley can find a wizard who can control fiendfyre then so be it. I don't think it's likely. He could wait another hundred years for such a wizard. But we've done all we can. You've all done wonderfully well."

As everyone gathered up their things, Luna took Ginny aside. There was a sorrowful look on her face as she said very softly, "Ginny, we're friends right?"

"Of course we are! What's wrong?"

"I wanted to give you something; it's a memento - just from a friend to a friend. Something I want you to hold for me and never lose it," said Luna.

"Of course, but..."

Luna took out a small folded handkerchief. She had tied a little pale blue ribbon around it. She handed it to Ginny. "It's not really to use - it's just something... a token of friendship."

Luna turned away. Ginny thought she had seen tears in her eyes. She stared at the handkerchief in her hand. The little ribbon had tiny figures on it. Little magical creatures. She put the gift into her pocket and walked back to Harry in silence.

As the sorry group packed up their things and trudged slowly back up towards the first gate, Luna asked quietly, "What about Miss Vablatsky?"

"What?" Bingley and everyone else turned around to look back. The old woman was still sitting near the lower gate, still knitting away with nothing to show for it.

"Miss Vablatsky!" called Bingley. "We have to leave now!"

"Just let me finish this," cackled the old witch. "I won't be long. Nothing to it."

"You must come with us," called Bingley. "I can't leave you here. If you don't then I'll get someone to carry you out."

"No, you won't," called the old woman in a matter-of-fact manner. She cast a light sphere above her head.

"What's that for? So you can see your knitting?" sneered Ron.

"No, it's so I can see your faces when you come back," said Vablatsky.

"We're not coming back!" said Ron. "Don't you get it?"

"Leave her. The Aurors must be here soon. They may already be in the compound. They can sort her out," said Neville.

But the Aurors were not in the compound. Someone else was. As Bingley's team rounded the final corner on their way out of the black stone building there was a figure silhouetted by the dazzling afternoon sunlight at the entrance, holding the door half-closed.





Author's Notes



Comments and reviews are welcome and very encouraging. Thank you.
:)
 

- Hippothestrowl




Chapter 22: Raising the Dead
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"Kingsley?" shouted Bingley. "Is that you?" She stared, blinking at the figure silhouetted by the dazzling daylight that poured down through the half-closed bronze gate.

"Stay just where you are! We do a deal. I can seal this door and delay you and you never see me again. Or we can deal." It was Draco Malfoy's voice.

Never was a group of people more surprised. They had so recently been contemplating the circumstances of his fiery death.

"What's going on?" whispered Ron to Harry.

"Worley must have used someone else to play Voldemort, not Draco." Harry whispered back, shaking his head. "Neville - were there any other prisoners?"

"Course not - I'd have said. None that I saw anyway."

"What have you got, Draco?" It was Bingley who was first to recover. "What are you offering?"

"There's a way. I don't want to spend my life on the run. And I don't want to go to Azkaban. You keep me out and get me a place in the shelter. You fix it."

Harry and Ron were starting to move forward but Bingley grabbed at them and ordered everyone to stay where they were.

"I have no such authority. You know that. I'm just a teacher..."

"Persuade them. You can tell them I helped. Find a way to keep me out of Azkaban or no deal."

"What help? What help can you give?" called Bingley.

"There's a way. There's a way past the fire. If I tell you, I want to go free."

"Can't do it Draco. I can speak to Kingsley. I can tell him you helped - that your help was critically important. That you gave up your freedom to help. And I can tell him you never killed anybody. I can try to persuade him yes but there will be a trial. I will speak on your behalf. My word on it. They should go easy on you. You are young. Azkaban is not what it was. No Dementors anymore." Bingley paused. "Best I can do, Draco."

Draco hesitated. There was a long silence. Everyone waited.

"No. It has to be a place in the shelter. Not Azkaban. If I'm locked up then it has to be in the shelter."

"What you talking about Malfoy?" shouted Ron. Bingley waved him to silence.

"What shelter? Where?" called Bingley.

Draco stared, then said. "You don't know, do you?"

"Know what?" said Bingley, waving Harry and Ron back as they got more and more restless.

"You're in it. You're in the shelter. It's a bunker. Underground. In case the valley doesn't survive." He said it as if he were talking about a mere ice cream left out in the sun.

There was a long silence. Even Ron and Harry were speechless as the reality sank in.

"What's he done, Draco? What's the curse?" asked Bingley. There was a hollow sound to her question.

"It's the air. He's doing something to the air. Bloody muggles won't survive that's for sure. Probably choke. Probably burn." He said the last sentences with relish.

"Mimble Wimble!" screamed Hermione, charging forward from the shadows. "That's my parents you're talking about!"

Draco had not found another wand since Neville took his own. Helpless to defend himself, his voice was instantly silenced and he clutched at his mouth in surprise. He staggered backwards against the bronze gate and his weight swung it fully open with a metallic crash. There was a note of finality about it.

Everyone surged forward after Hermione while Draco was off balance. Bingley was scolding Hermione but not forcefully. When Bingley reached Draco she quickly reversed Hermione's Tongue-Tying curse and started questioning Draco again.

"That Granger? Keep her away from me!" yelled Draco, finding his voice working again. Everyone was grouped around the Slytherin who was still leaning vulnerably against the metal gate. Hermione was not the only one who had her wand out in a threatening manner.

"Who did Worley send, Draco?" said Bingley, shaking him by the shoulder to get him to focus on her. "We thought it was you. Who did she send instead?"

"What are you talking about?" said Draco.

"The polyjuice. As Voldemort..."

"I thought you'd got her." Draco stared. "I hid. I hid in the trees and watched. She'd have killed me for letting Longbottom escape. I hid and watched. It was her last chance. Worley was the only one left. Isn't she with you?" He blinked down into the blackness, trying to see.

Then he added, "She didn't send anyone. There wasn't anyone else. She went herself. She drank the polyjuice herself."

Bingley stared around at the rest of them and was speaking to them as much as to Draco. "Then she's dead, Draco. We couldn't reach her in time. The fiendfyre got her. We thought it was you."

Bingley pulled him upright.

"I need a drink - water," said Draco. "I couldn't find anything."

"You'll get your drink. We need to talk," said Bingley.

Everyone stared or glared at Draco as they passed him, eyes blinking in the bright daylight. His head was bowed. But it was not in remorse. Nor in shame. It was just fear, failure, and disappointment that was writ on his face.

A room was found in one of the out-buildings of the Manse where they could discuss their next move. Almost before they had sat down, Kingsley Shacklebolt's lynx patronus manifested itself to declare he had been delayed longer than expected by the Chinese Ministry of Magic. Kingsley had been requesting entry of some seventy or eighty Aurors and officials and the Chinese authorities were not happy. They had regarded with great suspicion the story of a world curse located in their country - especially in an unheard of valley that was not shown on any of their maps. They refused to believe that all their maps could have been tampered with to that extent. But Kingsley was hopeful he and the Aurors would be able to depart in search of the Tiantang Valley by tomorrow or the day after.

Bingley sighed. "It is likely to be at least two days after that before they find this place - perhaps longer."

Draco had been reluctant to divulge his information without a positive assurance from the Minister and everyone was getting rather annoyed with everyone else as they decided what to do. Ron and Hermione took an opportunity to go together to a side table to get refreshments.

"Why'd you talk about it, Hermione?" asked Ron quietly. "It was meant to be just between us."

"I never said anything more than they already knew - that we've just discussed it and informally agreed one day we'll be married," said Hermione. "The cat was already out of the bag, anyway. Blame Miss Vablatsky."

She saw the look on Ron's face.

"I never said anything about what we talked about. I would never do that!! she said in a loud whisper. "Look, maybe it's all for the best. Who cares what anybody else knows or thinks. It's just us right?"

Ron said nothing.

"Ron, listen, there's something I want to tell you, something I've not properly said yet."

"What?" said Ron, sulkily.

Hermione paused.

"I need to tell you... I want to tell you how much I love you. I love you Ron. It's just you and me, always."

Ron was wrong-footed and embarrassed. He had not expected this - not at this moment, not here.

"Love you too," said Ron gruffly and put his arm round her shoulder and they went outside for a walk around the courtyard.

"Ron, you don't hate me for... I didn't really say anything..."

"No, course not," said Ron, his voice still rather choked up.

"But I hurt your feelings. I'm sorry." Hermione was suddenly overwhelmed with remorse. She looked at Ron, eyes shining.

"Why do people hurt one another? I mean, when they really care for each other?" She started sniffling.

"Now, come on, Hermione... Don't cry." He pulled out his handkerchief, hurriedly cleaned it with a Tergeo spell and gave it to Hermione to wipe her eyes.

As that moment Hermione heard something that surprised her. "Did you hear that, Ron? It was a cuckoo."

"So, erm...?"

"So, it's nearly December. Cuckoos lay their eggs in the spring. Perhaps it's the climate here. Maybe all the birds lay eggs all year round. Let's take a look. Maybe it's a good omen."

Ron and Hermione walked among the trees, never going out of sight of the entrance to the courtyard. Not being particularly knowledgeable about birds they failed to spot any nests but they were not concerned at all. They were two lovers strolling through a wonderland and absorbed in each other.

"You know, Ron, first at your mum's house, then with all the study at Hogwarts, and now this expedition, this is the first time we've been... together. You know, actually had time together properly alone since..."

"Yeah," said Ron, "We could do some serious snogging, here."

Their kiss was enduring but eventually ended when they heard the cuckoo again nearby. They both laughed. Then they saw eggs on the ground. Broken.

"Oh no..." said Hermione despondently. "I forgot. Many of them lay their eggs in other birds' nests and the cuckoo hatchling pushes the other eggs out of the nest."

"What for?" asked Ron, not really interested but interested in hearing Hermione talk to him.

"So they get all the food," said Hermione. Her enthusiasm for wildlife had suddenly come to an end. The reality of life in the jungle did not match the pretty picture in her mind.

"Come on, Ron, let's get back."

~~~~~~~~~~~~


"Draco, you blinkered mule!" exclaimed Harry in exasperation, "don't you realize that whatever this curse does to the world - it does it to your world as well as everyone else's? If the world blows up tomorrow because you delayed helping then you blow up with it."

"I'm staying here - in this place," said Draco. "I'm sure the Dark Lord has prepared it well."

"This will not look good when I explain it to the Minister. I honestly don't think he will be very receptive to helping you stay out of..."

"Alright! Alright! No need to spell it out. I get the picture," stormed Draco.

"So?" said Ginny. "Do we sit around all day while you worry about yourself instead of the world? Don't you ever think of anybody but yourself!"

Draco gave Ginny a vicious look and was just opening his mouth to speak when Harry jumped to his feet and pointed his wand at the Slytherin. "Don't you even consider saying what you're thinking, Malfoy! We're not at Hogwarts now. There's no Snape going to walk in and give you a present of fifty house points and steal them from Gryffindor. I'm half a second from changing you into a wart on a carbuncle on your own backside."

"Why bother. He won't look any different," snapped Ginny.

"Harry! Please, Remember Draco is temporarily in our custody," said Bingley. "There will be no violence, magical or otherwise."

"Yes, well, just remember, Malfoy, you're on very thin ice," snarled Harry.

"Will you get on with it, Draco!" said Neville, and his commanding tone made Draco turn and stare. Then he slumped back in seat and said one word.

"Inferius."

There were two or three gasps from around the room. Bingley looked startled. After a while she said, "You know how to do this?"

"Of course not," said Draco. "I assumed you would - or someone must - someone from the Aurors..."

"Is that it?" cried Bingley. "Is that your great plan? Don't you realize that bewitching corpses is very dark magic indeed. It's not just a little spell. It's a complete dark ritual. I doubt many Death Eaters know how to do it properly so it is highly unlikely that any Aurors, ministry officials, nor anyone else would know. I myself, have a wide knowledge of magic but have no idea where to even start with that black art."

Draco looked deflated. Luna raised her hand as if she were in class.

"Excuse me, what is... inferius, please?"

"Animated corpse - a reanimated dead body," said Harry darkly. "They are rather unpleasant to say the least. I don't like the idea of..."

"You mean..." Neville stared incredulously.

"Yes. He means, bring Voldemort back to life - or a kind of undead life at any rate," said Harry.

Ginny stared at Harry.

"How'd we know that would even work?" said Neville. "It wouldn't be Voldemort would it? Wouldn't it just be his body?"

Draco spoke again but without conviction. "Worley thought it might work. She said it's still the Dark Lord. She said there's nothing in the fiendfyre curse about him being dead or alive. She was fairly sure but was reluctant to try it except as a last resort..."

"I'm not surprised!" said Bingley. "I'm surprised she even knew how."

"She didn't," said Draco. "One of the Death Eaters was going to do it but you killed them all didn't you!"

"Oh, now it's our fault is it?" said Ron, who had just returned with Hermione to the discussion.

"Some of those in the pass are still alive - we left them stunned and bound," said Luna.

"Maybe it's one of those then - if we're lucky," said Bingley. "Do you know which one, Draco? Could you identify the one?"

"It was a woman - name of Lestraithe. She was a sinister little..."

"Lestraithe! She's back in the forest up a tree!" exclaimed Harry, jumping to his feet again and knocking over his chair as he looked at Rolf who nodded back to confirm he knew exactly where.

"Wait, wait. How do we know she'll do it? How do we know what she'll do? I don't like the idea of a Death Eater raising up Voldemort's ghost!" said Ron.

"Not a ghost, Ron; it's a dead person that is animated like a puppet," said Hermione.

"And who pulls the strings?" said Neville.

"The wizard who bewitches it," said Hermione.

"And we would all have to accompany the walking dead," said Luna quietly, "into a building so dark, so black we can't see properly then across a fiery pit into the unknown."

There was another silence.

"So to summarise," said Hermione. "Our lives would be in the hands of a Death Eater, a particularly nasty, psychopathic witch at that, who wishes us dead or worse, who has had a really bad day stuck up a tree, and would have to be given a wand, controlling a dead Voldemort using magic that none of us understands or could tell if it was bewitched instead to suck out our brains. And even if she co-operates fully and does only what we tell her to do, it might not work anyway. So if we're really lucky we only get burnt alive."

"That's about it, yes," said Bingley.

"Wonderful," said Ginny.

~~~~~~~~~~~~


Although they did not tell her why they wished to raise an inferius or whose it would be, Miss Frida Lestraithe was, not surprisingly, very unwilling to help and did not hold back any variation of bitter adjectives when she cursed and swore at her captors. She could see no advantage to herself until she was told she would be returned to her tree to await the arrival of the Aurors. This persuasion made her seem most eager to help but the sly look in her eye was not necessary to alert Bingley and her crew to be suspicious. They kept her well locked up with Draco in the same room the Death Eaters themselves had kept Neville.

Lestraithe's next ruse was to delay them by fabricating all manner of difficulties in the task of raising an inferius. She was helped in this because it soon became clear that it was a complex task anyway. The ritual required elements that might be hard to bring together anywhere but here in the valley it seemed impossible. Even simple tools such as a cauldron large enough for the body could not simply be purchased down an alley. But it was the exotic ingredients that seemed to be the main obstacle to completing the task.

Within the Manse meeting room that they had made their own, they gloomily surveyed the list. Lestraithe had provided this but she was excluded from the gathering. They would call on her as needed rather than have her glean any information from a careless word that might be useful to Death Eaters.

Hermione took out a very old, dirty, folded up piece of parchment and read out the list one more time.

"The Circle of Death.

"One Master, One Witness, Seven Connected.

"These Seven from seven points in seven circles each seven minutes doth cast:

"Blood of Life. 3 drops.

"Blood of the Newborn. 1 drop.

"Blood of the Near Dead. 4 drops.

"Blood of the Dead. 1 drop.

"Tears of Regret. At least 1 drop from each eye.

"Sap of Dittany. At least 18 drops."

"The body to be raised up, complete with all organs and limbs."

Hermione lay the parchment down on the central table around which they had all gathered. "Every single one will be hard... I don't even have any dittany left. I checked."

"Oh yes you do," smiled Neville. "Well, don't you remember? In the woods? I gathered several herbs and plants. They're dried and pressed - you're keeping them for me in your bag!"

Hermione eyes widened with realization. "Yes, I'd forgotten. There's dittany among them?"

"Of course. It loves warm sheltered woodland."

Hermione groped about inside her bag and came up with Neville's pressed herbs book which she handed back to him.

"Neville, can you get to work immediately making Dittany essence please?" said Bingley.

"No problem," said Neville, rising from his chair and heading for the kitchen.

"Good," said Bingley. "Remember, we need enough to make at least 18 drops."

Bingley picked up the list. "Seven connected. I think that's us - whoever is involved, committed to bringing the ingredients - probably have to put them in the mix. We have to remember who does what." She continued,

"Blood of the dead should not be too difficult. Who wants to volunteer to go up to the pass with Feya?"

"No, it means... It means, blood of the one who is dead," said Hermione. "It means the one whose body is to be re-animated. According to Miss Lestraithe anyway."

"But that's... Impossible. That's Voldemort himself. He's been dead too long. He's utterly desiccated. He has no blood that can be extracted. That can't be right. Are you sure, Hermione?"

"Yes. I thought it was odd myself. But Miss Lestraithe..." Hermione thought for a few moments. "Now I think about it, she guessed it was Voldemort. Obvious really. She was kind of smirking. It needs a fresh corpse obviously."

"So... this is all for nothing?" said Ron.

"There must be a way. Can't we get dried blood from him and... I dunno... Just add water?" said Harry.

"Doubtful. We'll check with Lestraithe later. Let's assume we find a way for now. What about the other things?" said Bingley. "What is 'Blood of Life' for instance?"

"Could it be unicorn blood?" said Harry suddenly. "But it's a most horrible crime to kill a unicorn and drink its blood."

"We need only three drops though," said Hermione

"A tiny pin prick would be enough," said Rolf. "It's best for a girl to do it. Unicorns are more passive then. I think it's because they seem less threatening. I wonder if perhaps... Feya? Would you go with Luna? Perhaps it's a good thing you stayed with us after all." He glanced rather nervously at Luna when he said this.

"Feya is always willing to serve Master Rolf," said the elf. "But where, Sir?"

"There's at least one family or possibly a small herd up in the east hill forest we came through. I heard them. They are mostly solitary but they do congregate at certain times. I can easily find them again."

"Go!" said Bingley. "Time may be critical." She watched as Rolf, Luna, and Feya, stood, held hands, and quickly disapparated.

"Blood of the Newborn. I don't like the sound of that," said Bingley. "Does this have to be a human baby?"

"Perhaps not," said Hermione thoughtfully, then after a few moments she said excitedly,"There are birds nesting out there! We heard a cuckoo! There are nests! Surely Rolf could find a recently hatched chick."

"But we could search for days to find a dying animal for the near dead one," said Ron. "I don't remember seeing any. I mean, they're normally dead ready to be eaten or they're alive and trying to eat you."

Ginny went white-faced and started to mutter to herself, "Oh no. Oh no. Oh no."

"What's wrong, Ginny?" asked Harry.

"Luna gave me this. I think she got scratched badly on the legs when we first came here. Neville's blasted trees, remember? All those splinters."

"Well, I think we all did," said Hermione, rubbing her leg at the memory.

"Well, she made me promise. She told me to keep it safe," said Ginny. She took out the small, neatly-folded handkerchief that Luna had given her. She looked horrified for some reason at what she was holding. The ribbon was gone. She had unfolded it only once previously. Now she opened it up again. It was blood-stained.

"But is she ill? Poisoned?" asked Bingley.

"She never said she was. I didn't know what it meant," said Ginny.

"This is nonsense. Luna didn't even know about this list until... Someone told her!" Hermione's eyes widened. "Miss Vablatsky told her! Miss Vablatsky's told Luna she's going to die soon I just know it! Don't you see? It doesn't mean she dying of some illness or poison. It means she... Something happens to Luna down in the... When we go back into..."

Ginny threw down the handkerchief onto the table and stalked out, weeping. Harry went after her. She stopped once in the doorway to shout back,"That's rubbish! She can't tell the future. That old crone doesn't know what she's talking about! She's probably planning to eat Luna! That's the only future she knows! You could see the way she was looking at her - pretending to make friends!"

"Ginny, she predicted Harry would find out about the fiendfyre... and I would overcome my fear and about... Ron and me..." began Hermione.

"No she didn't!" stormed Ginny, taking a couple of steps back into the room. "She told us about Harry after he came back! She told us about you overcoming your fear after it happened! And as for you and Ron - any fool can see you're in love! She's done nothing! nothing! She's just a hag!"

Ginny ran out with Harry not far behind her.

"It's true. We don't know any such thing about Luna!" snapped Bingley but she picked up the handkerchief nevertheless, folded it and placed it carefully down on the table in front of her.

"We all keep an eye on Vablatsky, right? If she tries anything, particularly with Luna... She's secretive. She's up to something." said Bingley.

"But if... If it's a genuine prophecy... Won't that mean... If we stop her..." Hermione was trying to puzzle it out.

"It means that," Bingley hesitated. "It means that if we use this blood and if the ritual works... Then yes, it must be true. She must die and there's nothing we can do about it."

Only Bingley, Ron, and Hermione now remained. Ron was staring hard at the handkerchief on the table.

"Hankie," said Ron quietly to Hermione.

"What? What about it?" Hermione replied sadly.

"Not that hankie. My hankie," said Ron.

"You want it back?" said Hermione, reaching into her pocket.

"No. It's tears, remember?" said Ron.

Hermione's eyes widened. She took out Ron's handkerchief and handed it to Bingley. "Tears of regret... But don't... Don't tell anyone where you got it."

Bingley gave a grim smile and studied the list again. "We have possibles now for all the ingredients except Voldemort's blood. I think perhaps it is time to look at the corpse."

"Hermione, you don't have to come," said Ron.

"Yes, I do," Hermione's voice was shaky but she was resolute.

"You don't need to prove anything to me," said Ron.

"Let's do it!" Hermione said briskly to Bingley, with her head held high.

They went to see Lestraithe and began to question her about the blood of the dead.

"Lord Voldemort!" Miss Lestraithe's pretence at shock was clear. She could not hide her sarcastic amusement. "You never said it was the Dark Lord you wished to raise up!"

"You only agreed to help so you could get out of that tree!" said Hermione sharply. "You knew all along what this was for didn't you!"

Lestraithe laughed her usual nasal, high-pitched laugh.

"There has to be a way! Tell us!" said Bingley.

"No there doesn't have to be a way!" smirked Lestraithe in her high whining voice. "Unless Lord Voldemort has a close blood relative nobody knows about!" She burst out in streams of high laughter.

Ron gestured to Bingley they should go outside to talk. Once they had closed and locked Lestraithe's cell door they could still hear her laughing so they moved well away.

Ron looked at Hermione. "Didn't Harry say his blood was in Voldemort?"

"It was only a trickle..." said Hermione. "You don't think..."

"No, No. Look. He said Voldemort was raised up in that graveyard at Little Hangleton. Embodied. Given a new body, right?" said Ron eagerly.

"Yes, but..." said Hermione.

"Don't you see. Voldemort never had any blood of his own at all. He was just a lost soul. He used a temporary foetal creature but he was just a spirit wanting a completely new body. His blood is all Harry's!"

"Why that's... Brilliant! ... Ron, you're a genius!" said Hermione, giving him a hug.

"Always the tone of surprise," said Ron, but he was grinning broadly.

Bingley stared at the other two. "You're sure of this, Ron?"

"Absolutely! Harry told us all about it. He didn't tell many - but he told us. That's how he survived the killing curse the second time. It was his mother's blood still in Voldemort that bound Harry to this world."

"Then that's it! There's a chance!" said Bingley, excited and hopeful for the first time in a long while.

~~~~~~~~~~~~


The satanic gathering in the Manse courtyard was a very strange one indeed. It was now dark but they dare not delay until morning. The moon was full and bright above them in a clear sky. The great white column of light that Bingley had produced as a signal lit the courtyard in an eerie fashion. It's light was so uniform that none of the surrounding buildings had any dark areas yet the seven gathered there all cast very long dark shadows indeed across the black concentric circles drawn on the stone slabs at their feet.

But it was the wrapped bundle that lay beside the enlarged cauldron within the central circle that held everyone's gaze. Every seven minutes for the last seventy, each of them had cast in turn their ingredient into the pot while Lestraithe chanted and stirred. Harry cast drops of his own blood; Neville, the dittany; Rolf, one drop of blood from a hatchling chick; Luna the unicorn blood; Hermione cast Ron's handkerchief, wet with her tears, and Ginny reluctantly cast Luna's blood-stained one. She dare not look at her friend nor speak of it.

Now it was time for the decayed corpse. Ron as the final one of the seven, had to cast it in. He had carried it here. It was he who committed himself as one of the seven. And it was he must cast it in.

Ron winced in revulsion as he gathered up the bundle of bones and dead flesh. It had little weight and he held it as far from his own body as he could reach. Lestraithe sniggered as she watched. "Careful with... You-know-what!" She laughed loudly and her laughter echoed madly around the courtyard. As Ron tipped it over the side of the cauldron his grip on the cloth shrouds held the sheets back and the corpse slipped freely from them. Just for that moment they all had their first glimpse of the awful body but their gasps were lost in the unpleasant splash as the corpse rolled on the surface for a few seconds then slid silently beneath into the bubbling liquid. Ron dropped the wrappings and moved quickly back to his position on the inner circle wiping his hands on his jeans.

Bingley stood well away from the circles with Draco at her side. Wand drawn menacingly, she kept watchful eye only on Lestraithe.

Feya stood as witness on the sidelines with her hands covering her face, peering between her fingers. It was an order that Rolf had been reluctant to give her but Lestraithe's command did not sound reluctant at all.

"Arise I command thee, that which is dead!"

"Obey me, your master, for I am your life!"

For a few seconds nothing appeared to happen then Ginny screamed as a small bony hand clawed on the edge of the cauldron rim. It's hooked nails scraped loudly along the metal as it struggled to gain hold then something large heaved itself up into the midst of the fetid miasma that hung over the pot. It was Voldemort. Not as he had been in life but corrupted, bent over. His dead grey skin was drawn tightly across his skull-like face. It stretched too across his twisted body, here and there torn into dark empty gaps through which dull bones thrust.

The ugly, naked creature lurched, falling forward across the rim of the cauldron, groping as if blind. Yet its red eyes were open, malevolent, staring around, seeing the seven fearful faces for the first time.

"Careful Lestraithe!" warned Bingley.

The creature slid itself over the side of the cauldron and crawled wetly around to Lestraithe whose face was maniacally lit with excitement at the sense of power over her former master.

Lestraithe roared to the skies, "To complete the ritual you must all now kiss my feet... and my inferius!"

Ginny's nerve broke first and she ran away from the circles to where Feya was standing. The others were more hesitant, looking to Bingley.

"Lestraithe, I'm warning you! The ritual is over. It's over." shouted Bingley.

"The inferius is raised. We all now go down into the building that is black. We cannot wait." cried Bingley.



Author's Notes



Comments and reviews are welcome and very encouraging. Thank you.
:)
 

- Hippothestrowl




Chapter 23: Nothing
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The march down into the blackness was far worse the second time than the first. The group were followed by the corpse, the inferius of Voldmort, led by Lestraithe. The sound of its feet scraping and slithering over the ground behind them; its rancid breath rasping and moaning from rotted lungs, all kept everyone's nerves on edge and all pressed well forward to keep as far away as possible.

The first silver gate was already open as they had left it and Cassandra Vablatsky still sat at the lower one, calmly knitting. Luna sat down to join her in the activity, watched closely by Ginny and others. They only stopped and arose once the lower gate had been opened by Bingley.

Harry led the way and cautioned them as they approached the final bend at the top of the long corridor in which he knew lurked the fiendfyre. All cringed to one side as Frida Lestraithe led the lumbering corpse by them and commanded it to walk ahead of her.

As they cautiously followed the dead corpse towards the fire grid they were instinctively keeping further and further back, expecting at any moment for the flames to leap out and fill the corridor.

"Keep well forward," said Bingley. "We're safer the closer we are to... Voldemort - or we're not safe at all."

There was a smell like dinner had burned in the oven. Hermione took out a peppermint and popped it in her mouth. They could see a dark figure apparently kneeling near the grid. Not far beyond was a lit doorway. Light stonework could be seen beyond it but the light did not spill out at all onto the black floor of their corridor - or at least, it did not illuminate it.

As the Voldemort inferius groped its way to the grating, everyone held their breath. Hermione swallowed her peppermint almost whole. Ron wiped a sleeve across his brow. Everyone stopped.

"Quickly," whined Lestraithe. "Get across."

"That's Worley!" said Harry, looking at the burnt remains next to the grid.

"Never mind that! Get across - quickly!" insisted Lestraithe in her high nasal voice.

Harry could see that Worley's blackened body was not really kneeling - nor crouching. Her torso had collapsed down upon itself, burnt through to a sickening charred stump. But there was something unburnt caught up in the remains. It was her bag. Somehow it had been magically protected from the flames.

Filled with revulsion, Harry leaned down and took the bag. The blackened corpse keeled over onto the grid, breaking in half as it did so. Incandescent air flared briefly up through the grill but the fire itself seemed satisfied that Voldemort was there and fell back. Harry had no time to investigate the bag now; he had to lead everyone across without further delay.

They each stepped, tentatively at first, up to the grating but once each of them felt the heat of the fires below they ran across it rapidly, glad to get to the other side. Harry reached the doorway on the other side first and entered cautiously but happy to see visible stonework instead of the tiresome black they had left behind

"It's... it's a dead end," he said flatly. His disappointment hung in the air and was soon shared by all.

The others gathered around, examining the walls of the small room. It was perhaps twenty feet or so square and as high, with two ceiling-to-floor pillars against each wall. The main walls and pillars were of a warm pastel orange while the stone pillars were ornately but abstractly carved and patterned of a darker orange shade that blended well. However, apart from the doorway by which they had entered, the central area between each pair of pillars was panelled with the same black stone that lined the preceding corridors though here it seemed intended as stark contrast by an over-enthusiastic decorator. The room was uniformly and brightly illuminated but by what source, nobody could see.

Long stone benches lined the walls between all the pillars except for the three walls that were black and Luna quickly threw herself down on one and caressed the orange wall behind it with the flat of her hand. "Lovely! We can see. I was getting a little tired of the decor so far but this is nice." She drew a happily hopping rabbit of light on the wall anyway.

"So where to now?" asked Rolf, sitting down next to Luna. Feya joined them though she remained dutifully standing until Luna patted the seat beside her.

"Well, there were no other turnings so..." Harry was looking back through the doorway by which they had entered, looking back to where Voldemort had stood next to the grid. He was gone.

"Where's Lestraithe!" yelled Harry and ran back out towards the fire grid.

"Harry! No!" shouted Bingley. "Keep back from the fires!"

Harry slowed to a stop, staring ahead up the long corridor. He could not directly see anyone but he saw a dark loping shadow eclipse the lighting they had strung along the way. He knew that gait. It was the inferius of Voldemort.

"Lestraithe! What are you doing!" yelled Harry.

Only high nasal laughter drifted back to him, echoing from the black walls. Harry raised his wand but hesitated. He turned to Bingley who was now at his side with the others coming up behind.

"What do we do? I might be able to hit... I don't see how we can bring her back..."

"Stupefy!" cried Bingley, with her wand aiming blindly up the corridor.

"What good will that do!" said Harry loudly. "Now she can never bring the inferius back. We can't cross back over the grid without it." He stared in dismay into the darkness.

"If I managed to hit Lestraithe then the inferius should stay there with her. Perhaps Kingsley will figure out what to do when he gets here."

Faint nasal laughter receding in the distance came echoing back to inform them that Bingley had missed. Lestraithe and the Voldemort inferius were gone.

"We're trapped here?" shouted Ron. "We can't go forward or back?"

"Calm down, Ron," said Hermione. "We'll figure something out."

"No way forward or back?" blustered Ron. "What's to figure? Are you Luna or something? Luna! Luna!" he turned round looking for the young Ravenclaw girl.

"Luna! What do you reckon? Need a box? What do you need?" said Ron, loudly and frantically.

"Well, it seems to me it would be very strange if all these corridors led nowhere," said Luna, but she wasn't smiling.

Luna went back to the pillared room and the others followed. Cassandra Vablatsky was sitting on a stone bench quietly knitting. Luna joined her.

"Oh right! Let's all do some knitting shall we?" grumbled Ron.

"You can if you want. I'll show you," said Luna brightly.

"I was joking, Luna," growled Ron.

"So was I, Ron," said Luna. "It's very difficult to knit nothing at all. I keep dropping stitches."

Ron missed the hint that he might not be smart enough to knit but he caught Luna's attitude and turned away.

Everybody began to sit down on the various benches while they wondered what to do. Hermione sat down and indicated to Ron to join her. Ron pulled a face and flung himself down to sit on the floor with his back to one of the black panels - the one opposite the doorway. He rolled over backwards and his head and shoulders disappeared into the wall.

As everyone stared in confusion, Ron's legs and arms were flailing around as he seemed to be struggling to get himself upright. As he did so, he came twisting out of the wall, yelling with fear. "What the bloody hell was that!"

Hermione was on her feet, alarmed. "What happened? What just happened?"

"Don't touch it! Don't touch it until I've checked it. It's likely to be dark magic," said Bingley, starting to get unusually agitated. She went over to where Ron was stood staring at the black panel.

"It must be a doorway. A secret doorway," said Luna. She had stopped knitting and was looking rather concerned.

Rolf went over to the one of other black panels but found it to be solid stone. Neville was checking the one opposite that and found the same.

Everyone stared at the central black panel which Bingley was now investigating with her wand held in a very unsteady hand.

"Feya is frightened, Miss Luna," said the little elf. Luna looked worriedly at her but for some reason did not reply.

"I feel a bit nervous myself," Rolf said anxiously.

"I'm the one who fell in there!" shouted Ron. "It's awful. There's... There's..." He started shaking.

Bingley went down on one knee and dropped her wand.

"What's wrong, Professor?" Harry was at her side, helping her up.

Bingley tried to speak but faltered. She turned to Harry. Her expression was one of intense dread. She had the look of someone who was reaching out for help. Harry guided her away from the wall to a bench on the opposite side.

"I'll sit with her, Harry," said Ginny, but she looked very troubled herself.

Harry looked around at all the frightened faces. Apart from Bingley, he could see that Draco and Feya seemed the worst affected.

"Fear? Is that it? Is that the best you can do, Voldemort!" shouted Harry. He turned and strode towards the black panel.

"No Harry!" several people shrieked at once but it was Neville who got to him first and pulled him back.

"This place is cursed," Bingley finally said quietly. "It's a curse of fear. I can't break it." She was staring into space.

"Ah! That explains it," said Miss Vablatsky.

"Explains what?" asked Ron, rather bluntly.

"Why I feel so frightened," she replied.

"Didn't you see this coming? I thought you knew everything that's going to happen," said Ron wildly.

"I only see where I look. I knew we'd all be frightened but I didn't know why."

"Why didn't you tell us? Why don't you ever tell us anything?" said Hermione.

"I didn't want to alarm you unnecessarily," said the old woman.

"We have to investigate," said Neville, his voice faltering. "Think it through. Work out a plan. Find out what's in there. What we have to do."

The old woman was still knitting but her movements were more agitated. Luna forced herself to resume too. Ron, still standing, stared around at everyone else. "This is crazy."

There was a long silence. Everyone seemed frozen by their own thoughts.

"I'll go," said Hermione after a while. Her face was white with fear and she was shaking.

"No, Hermione!" cried Ron. "Listen, you don't need to keep proving yourself to us..."

"I need to do it for myself!" said Hermione firmly. She was close to tears but somehow was containing them. She lifted her chin and said defiantly, "Take my hand, Ron. Whatever you do - don't let go."

She moved closer to the black opening, turned, and held out her arm to Ron who stood with a look of horror on his face. Harry stared, unable to offer any objection. Bingley seemed to be unable to function properly.

"I'll never let you go, Hermione," said Ron, stepping forward and taking her hand in his. They looked each other in the eyes. Fear was still there but pushed into the background for a while. Hermione saw the certainty, the reliability, and the reassurance she needed. Ron saw the love that he knew he would never desert. They kissed briefly. They needed no further confirmation.

Still holding onto Ron, Hermione turned, took out her wand, and reached out with it into the black doorway. Feeling nothing in particular, no cold, no heat, no pain, she took the plunge and walked forward resolutely drawing Ron after her. She disappeared into the blackness.

Harry and Neville rushed forward and grabbed hold of Ron whose arm was extended into the dark.

"That's far enough, Ron!" said Harry. "If we lose you, we lose Hermione!"

Ron seemed not to hear. His entire attention was on Hermione; he could no longer feel her hand.

"She's gone!" he cried. "She's gone! I've lost her!" Ron and Neville had to use all their strength to stop Ron pushing fully into the blackness in search of Hermione.

"She's still there," Miss Vablatsky said quietly. "Just pull her back gently."

"I can't! I've not got hold of her any more!" wailed Ron.

"Yes you have," insisted the old woman. "Remember what she said: Whatever you do, don't let go. Keep your hand closed. Just pull her back."

"I can't even feel my hand!" moaned Ron. "I don't know if it's open or closed!"

Ron and Neville pulled on Ron and reluctantly he tried to move backwards. He felt a resistance. Something was holding him back at first but then it started to yield. As more of his arm appeared he started to weep, certain that his hand would be empty; almost unable to look.

But Ron's hand was not empty. As Hermione's arm emerged, he once again felt the warmth of her hand in his. Her pulled her rapidly to him and they threw their arms around each other. Even after Ron relaxed, Hermione would not let go. She said nothing but clung to Ron silently shaking for a long time. Ron wondered if she had also been unable to feel his hand; what had she felt completely immersed in that awful place?

"Nothing. Nothing but blackness and fear. No light, no sound, no sensation, no feeling. I couldn't even feel myself," said Hermione eventually "I couldn't even taste that peppermint... I can taste it again, now." Her voice was empty of emotion and her eyes seemed to be looking back within herself - trying to recall a memory with nothing in it at all.

"I tried to cast the Flagrate charm but nothing happened. I couldn't even hear myself - couldn't even feel my mouth move or my throat vibrate. I couldn't feel my wand. Ron, I couldn't even feel your hand. I thought you'd... I thought I'd let go until I felt something pulling me. I couldn't detect anything in there."

"Don't worry, nothing can be sensed in the sense void," said the old woman, continuing to weave away with her wand.

"Don't worry! Don't worry!" cried Ron. "Aren't we supposed to go through there? How are we going to get through? How big is it? Where's the other side?"

"That should be enough," Vablatsky said to Luna and they both got up off the floor. She reached out to Luna with her wand. Rolf stepped forward angrily. The old witch's arms seemed to move through the air in strange new patterns and she was chanting something softly.

"No, Rolf," said Luna. "It's alright."

Vablatsky was now moving her arms and wand as if pulling something from Luna towards herself, something unseen.

"What is that?" demanded Rolf.

"It's nothing. Nothing at all," said the old woman.

"I will lead the way," she continued, "then Harry."

"Why me?" said Harry.

"Because that's how it happens," replied the old witch.

She lined them up along the side wall and cautioned them all to remain in order. As she did so, she was casting a charm, moving her arms to encircle each of them. Luna picked up Feya and the old witch encircled them both together.

"No matter what," Luna said quietly to the little elf, "you keep saying to yourself over and over, Miss Luna is holding me. Miss Luna is holding me. Can you do that?" Feya nodded. She was lost to fear and could not answer but she seemed to understand and clung on extra tightly to Luna.

Last but one was Bingley who was so particularly affected by the curse of fear.

"When all seems lost, you will receive unexpected help," the old woman said to her. She cast a charm that seemed to revive Bingley a little though she still looked terrified.

Vablatsky came to Draco last.

"Not me," he said hoarsely. "I'm not going in there."

His face was contorted with fear and wet with sweat. He sank down against a wall, curled up against it, hugging his own shoulders.

"If you stay here then you stay with the fear. I would be terrified to remain here all on my own forever," said Vablatsky. "but if you come with us then in just a few minutes you will be released from it."

It was that new threat, endless terror instead of temporary fear, which compelled Draco to stand finally and he submitted to Vablatsky's spell. As she rejoined the head of the queue Harry said, "It's fine for you isn't it, Miss Vablatsky? You aren't scared because you know what's going to happen."

The old woman looked at him. "You're wrong. It's because I do know what's going to happen that I'm more scared than anyone here."

"But you know the way. You've seen which way to go," said Harry, staring at her.

"I have never been here before. I have no idea of the way," said the old woman. Harry could see now that through the aged wrinkles and years of sun that darkened her features, she was as frightened as the rest of them.

"You don't know the way!" cried Ron fearfully. "Then why the hell are we doing this?"

"Because that's what happens," said the old lady.

She turned to the black wall and braced herself. "Many souls are lost in there. They cannot harm you so do not be frightened of them. Do not concern yourself with them nor try to help them. You cannot."

"Lost souls! Don't be frightened!" moaned Ginny, clutching at Harry who was in front of her. Her pendant was a dull, colourless, dark grey. Harry put his hand on hers but he was as horrified as everyone else.

"Do not hold onto anyone or anything. Trust in nothing. It will guide you through. You must keep up... or die forever," said the old woman, and she stepped through the black surface and disappeared.

"Die forever?" Ron muttered to himself. "Did she say, 'Die forever'?"

Bingley, ashen-faced, drew deep on all her reserves. She called out weakly, "You heard what she said. Keep moving. Keep up with the one in front. Let's get through as quickly as possible."

Harry stepped through. He was merely frightened before but now he was seized by panic. There was just blackness, no sound, no sensations, no sense of direction. There was just one thing that kept him from recoiling immediately back to the relative security of the room he had just left. Ahead of him there was a finely woven gold and silver thread. It glowed - yet it did not glow. He could see it - yet not see it. He knew of it - but he did not know he knew of it. It lay out before him and was pulling away. At the end it was looped; a floating, moving ring of thread. Looking down - where he thought was down - he was standing on nothing. Yet he saw a similar loop where he expected to see himself. He saw the thread tighten ahead of him and felt a sensationless pulling. He stepped forward slowly.

Turning his head he saw another loop emerge from nowhere behind him. Ginny! He tried to speak some words of comfort. He believed he did speak. But he felt no sensation of speaking and he heard nothing.

Helpless, he could do nothing but keep following the thread ahead of him. He tried to blank out the terrible blackness around him; tried to shout at his fear, to get angry at it as if it were not his. He tried to close his eyes. He did close his eyes. But there was no sense of closing them. All was black silent terror, open or closed.

Something pushed or pulled against his side. He could feel nothing but a sense of being held or moved - by something that was not within the thread loops. Harry cringed but he did not feel himself cringe. He tried not to think what was pushing him but his mind was filled with visions of thousands of invisible inferii endlessly dying, endlessly reaching out for unattainable help.

His nerve was near breaking. The only thing holding him together was the thread ahead of him. Without that he would be lost here forever in blackness. Without that he knew he could not have endured. But suddenly it was disappearing, shrinking back to him. The same panic he had felt at the start gripped him again. Involuntarily, he stopped walking. The thread stopped shrinking too. Then he felt the pulling again, this time from in front. He could not resist it somehow - could not resist the pulling. He did not know if he screamed as he stepped forward against his own will.

There was a rush of sensation, bright light, noise, taste, breathing, a voice, someone standing there. There was a hard, sharp slap in the face. It was wonderful, wonderful, sensation.

"Harry Potter! Help me with the others!" said Cassandra Vablatsky breathlessly.

In shock, Harry turned and helped the old woman pull on something he could not see or feel. Ginny came tumbling into view and Harry lifted her to her feet. There was vomit all down her front and she was staring blindly. She could not see Harry - or at least, her mind was so distraught she could make no sense of anything. He put one arm around her shoulder and held on to her. But he had to help the others.

As the others appeared one by one in a similar state of shock and confusion, Harry realized where they were. His heart sank. They were back in the original room. They had gone around in a circle.

Neville was there now, helping the others through. Good old Neville. A sense of reality was returning to Harry. Nobody had yet noticed. Harry despaired of having to ever go through that void again. He knew he could not. The old woman had got the direction wrong. But something else was wrong too.

Rolf had been the last to come through. Only Bingley and Draco remained but they were not coming when expected. While Rolf was staring around wide-eyed trying to orient himself, Neville was pulling on the invisible nothing thread behind him - urged by the old lady - but nobody else was appearing.

A minute passed. Harry wanted to say that he would go back. He would go back into that awful blackness to try to help. But he could not. He could not say the words. Nobody could. Nobody had any courage left to give. They waited.

Several in the group became racked with intense shuddering as their bodies tried to adjust. Ginny crouched low and vomited again on the floor.

Draco's head appeared low down. Then his shoulders. He was on the floor crawling. He was sobbing and wailing. He was dragging something. It was Professor Bingley. She may have been unconscious or she may have just been so frightened she had temporarily lost all control of mind and body. But Draco was pushing and pulling her out. And swiftly Neville was there too, helping them both.

"You saved her," said a pale-faced Luna, still holding Feya in her arms. "Thank you Draco."

Harry was about to say that Draco was relying solely on Bingley to speak on his behalf at his trial - but he kept quiet.

Rolf was looking around, puzzled.

"Yes, we're back here," Harry said to him very softly, hoping to delay the moment before everyone else's heart sank as low as his felt right now.

"That's what I did think," said Rolf, "but now I think not."

He was pointing through the opposite doorway. The fire corridor was gone. It seemed to be another dead end.



Chapter 24: Payment
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The room, though smaller, was, like the last, plain, uninteresting, and unattractive and very grey - of dull grey stone. But unlike the other it seemed to have no obvious purpose; no function. It was a dead end. There was no other exit from this room. It led nowhere. It contained only a couple of thick stone central pillars and, against the far wall, a large drainage grate from which emanated a stench that became quite dreadful as they came closer to it. Ginny and Hermione quickly left the others to investigate and returned to the black doorway room and sat on one of the benches. Miss Vablatsky and Feya went with them and sat on another.

Rolf and Luna went back to check if they had missed a handle, a chain - anything - even though they were certain that they had not. That room was bland. It's only feature the black doorway back into the dreadful sense void. Like its twin, the two black side panels were just that - black stone and not doorways. Draco just sat there, staring at nothing. Since his ordeal with the fear curse in the sense void he seemed to have lost interest in the real world.

Ron and Harry investigated the walls of the empty drainage room for secret openings, marks, signs, anything that might lead them onwards. Bingley, still recovering from the fear curse and anxious to not show it, held a kerchief over her mouth and was looking down into the drain with her nose and eyes wrinkled up instinctively in disgust at the smell. Neville joined her, braving it without a kerchief but soon wishing he had not.

All around the drain the stone floor was mouldy with a dark brown slimy fungus of which species Neville was unsure yet it did look vaguely familiar to him and he felt that he ought to know. The big cavity below the grating was dark - much too dark to see properly. It looked dry but there were what seemed to be drainage channels around a large flat central slab. It made no sense to Bingley that any drain would be needed in this room. Though the air felt damp there was no possible visible source of water leakage from anywhere - no pipes or tanks.

"Lumos," said Professor Bingley, raising her wand which she then lowered to peer down into the drain. She muttered something and stood up quickly.

"What is it, Professor?" asked Neville, which drew the attention of the other two.

Bingley crouched down again. Her wand light dimmed to a feeble glow. She stood up and it flared brightly again.

"I have a terrible feeling... it's a wizard trap," said Bingley.

"A what?" said Harry.

"A wizard trap drains magic. A wizard trapped in there could not use magic to escape. Perhaps it was used... to cage someone - that slab is, I think, a stone bed."

"That's disgusting," said Ron. "Why not just take their wands and give them a decent dungeon?"

"Well, a wizard trap is really a snare to trap wizards from even casting wandless spells. But this one makes no sense. I'm not even sure..."

"Not much of a trap then is it?" said Ron. "Where's the bait? Why would anyone get in there? Now if it was a nice big airy room with a banquet table and music and piles of free Galleons it would make more sense."

"Exactly." said Bingley. "Makes no sense."

"Turn your eyes away for a few moments," said Bingley. She cast a brighter light. "Lumos Maxima."

This produced a sphere of light which in the small room was overpoweringly bright but as she lowered it to the grating it diminished. "More light," she said to the other two.

Ron, Harry, and Neville all produced their own bright lights and lowered them. Soon there were four spheres of light hovering just above the grating and these gave just enough gloomy light to see that the drainage channels down in the sump were shiny black, grotesquely so, and everywhere was the same grime and brown mould that had crept above the grating.

"What are those marks?" asked Harry, pointing to the far wall of the drain which was recessed a couple of feet further back from the grating. Bingley moved back slightly and peered down.

"They may be runes," said Bingley. "I might be able to decipher some of it if I could get closer - but it may need a specialist."

"Hermione!" shouted Harry, "Have you got your advanced runes textbook in your bag?"

Hermione appeared in the doorway. "Spellman's?" She rummaged in her bag and pulled out the volume. Although reluctant to fully enter the room, the notion that she might be able to apply her knowledge usefully drew her forward, if not eagerly, at least willingly. Ginny followed her but not willingly at all - just not wanting to be left in the room with the old woman - but also not wanting Luna to be left with her too.

"What's Miss Vablatsky up to?" asked Bingley, looking back and reading Ginny's body language,

"It's alright, Rolf is with Luna," said Ginny quietly, but not going too far from the doorway.

"Is Luna still looking... alright? She's not sick or anything?" asked Bingley.

"No, as far as I can tell..." said Ginny. "It's the old hag we've got to watch."

"Ginny, Miss Vablatsky is not going to eat Luna," smiled Harry. "She just helped us didn't she? Helped us get here?"

"Yeah - for what though? What's in it for her?" answered Ginny, sullenly.

Bingley, still crouching over the drain, looked across and caught Hermione's eye.

"Not down there surely?" moaned Hermione, moving forward even more hesitantly.

"Wait, stand back. We have to get this open first." said Bingley.

She stood up and began various chants and incantations but the grating remained closed. She moved further back and used more agressive curses, some of which produced small explosions, fire, sparks, and various sound and smoke effects - but all to no avail. "This will need more thought."

Ginny pulled a wry face and came over for a look. She tugged at the grating. It was stiff and rusted in but it lifted without too much difficulty and she flung it back on its hinges to crash on the ground. "It was open," said Ginny with a half scowl, half smirk as she wiped her hands down her jeans.

"Ten points to Gryffindor," muttered Professor Bingley then added with a wink, "I was just testing you guys."

"In you jump, Hermione." said Harry with a grin.

Let me check it first for curses, hexes, jinxes, traps, and so on," said Bingley.

"And rats." said Ron.

"Ron, please!" said Hermione, not relishing the prospect of going anywhere near that stinking hole let alone entering it, rats or no rats.

While Bingley tested the pit for dark magic, Ron and Harry went back and sat down wearily in the stone bench room.

"Are we wasting our time?" Harry asked Miss Vablatsky, knowing he was unlikely to get a helpful answer.

"You have to do what you have to do," she said. Feya was repeatedly massaging the old woman's frail hands and scrawny forearms to make them more supple and stronger using a warm yellow creamy potion that the old lady had provided herself.

After nearly half an hour of exhaustive testing, Bingley pronounced the cage pit to be safe apart from its magic-draining properties. "But on no account should anyone close the grating while anyone is down there! I cannot be sure of the results of that without testing and I have no intention of testing it until we have some idea what the runes mean."

"Why are we even bothering with this?" asked Ginny, "when we need to get on further somewhere else? This might be interesting to some but shouldn't we be looking for a doorway or something?"

"It's all we have at the moment to investigate," said Bingley drily. "All other suggestions are welcome."

Ginny had nothing to offer so went back into the other room.

"I'll go first alone for a while." said Bingley, and she lowered herself onto the stone slab down in the drain. Like Hermione, she was a little embarrassed at the weakness she had shown when affected by the fear curse and was now being over eager to prove herself.

Bingley scrubbed at the markings with an old piece of sackcloth to take away some of the grime and mould so she could see better. It seemed strange to her to clean without magic. Hermione moved closer to the drain, her curiosity overcoming her reluctance and disgust. Bingley was perched on one edge of the stone bed, leaning into the recess, straining to read the runes in the dim light while making notes. Occasionally she pulled her head out of the recess and looked up to ask Hermione to check something in her book.

After an hour, Harry, Ron, and Neville had come closer too and were staring down into the drain to see what progress had been made with the runes.

"Bloodslime!" Neville suddenly declared loudly and exultantly. "I knew it was familiar!"

Bingly banged her head on the top of the recess and pulled out to hear what the commotion was.

"It's an unusual slime mould that feeds on congealed wizard blood. It absorbs magical elements which help it survive for long periods without sustenance until... and..."

Neville had begun excitedly but his voice faded as he saw everyone staring at him. "Well, yes, I suppose it's not that interesting. It was just nagging me to remember is all."

"Not interesting? Not much!" said Harry. "You mean that stuff down there is congealed blood?"

"Well, yes but it's the mould that is... Oh right. Yeah. The blood. That's wizard's blood that is."

"Yeuk!" said Ron.

Bingley was now staring more closely at the stone bed on whose edge she was sat. It was about seven feet long and divided by seven fine lines across its width. The entire drain pit was not much bigger with only two or three feet on either side and not enough height to stand without crouching if the grating were closed. The professor stood on the stone slab and climbed out of the hole. "That figures. It's not a bed. It's an altar. A sacrificial altar. I was beginning to get a hint from the runes but the blood confirms it."

Everyone stared at each other.

"Why the hell would anyone sacrifice anyone down in that hole?" wailed Ron, groping through his mind for some sensible explanation. "It's downright sick."

"Death Eaters, Ron. They are sick." said Harry.

"There must be some logical explanation but I'm too tired to continue for a while." said Bingley as she moved away from the drain and rigorously used the scouring charm to clean herself and her robes of the filth.

"I'll take over." said Hermione, surprising herself as well as everyone else. She took the notes from Bingley. There was no real structure yet to the readings, just individual letters, part-words and even one or two phrase parts but none of them made sense in isolation from the overall context.

"Oh there's quite a lot though you've got. I think you've done the worst part already. Once a little meaning starts to emerge here and there it will cast light on the other sections and the translation should speed up," said Hermione as she lowered herself cautiously down trying, impossibly, not to touch anything too disgusting. She was getting a little excited now, like it was a school project and this had helped overcome her reluctance to get down into the pit. Ron came over and sat above on the edge with his feet dangling down so she would not feel so isolated.

"The stink is unbelievable down here." She looked up. "When did you last change your socks?"

"Very funny. Ha ha!" said Ron. "I'll move my feet elsewhere then."

"No no. Stay." She gave his leg a squeeze. "I appreciate the gesture."

By the end of the day they had transcribed most of the runes onto parchment and deciphered sections out of context. Bingley had resumed work down in the pit to try to fill in some of the gaps. She looked up sombrely. "I think I have the general idea now."

She pulled herself out of the hole with a strange look on her face.

"There's a hidden doorway somewhere we have to find. A payment has to be made to pass; a payment in blood," said Bingley quietly. "I need time to think this through. Give me time please."

Bingley went out of the drain room and the others stared at one another in alarm.

"It's not so bad," said Harry to the others. "It's blood don't you see? It's just blood. Dumbledore's done this before. I've done it before..."

"You have?" said Neville in amazement.

"There was a horcrux we had to retrieve from a cave concealed by a doorway. We had to give it a little blood to get in and out," explained Harry. He had already told the others this story.

"Who then?" said Neville, rolling up his sleeve.

"I think we should wait for Professor Bingley," said Hermione. "There may be some details she has to work out."

They all went into the other room to wait. Harry started to walk towards Bingley who was sat at the far end studying her notes but Hermione stopped him.

"Give her time," she said."Let's not distract her."

The group sat around in pairs talking quietly. Feya was, as ever, massaging Cassandra Vablatsky's hands and arms. Some time passed before Bingley gave a great sigh, threw her notes down on her bench and came over to join the others. They could see now her face was ashen and very troubled.

"I'll do it, Professor," said Harry then added as a sudden thought hit him, "It's... not a lot of blood is it?"

Bingley stared uncomprehendingly for a few seconds then she seemed to realize what Harry was talking about. "All of it."

Everyone stared at her in horror.

"It's worse than that," continued Bingley. "The text says the group must sacrifice their leader - but which of you should do it is what troubles me."

"Our leader?" murmured Neville.

"That's me," clarified Bingley. "I'm ready but I don't know how to ask you... who is to do it?"

Hermione was studying her own notes, trying to read what Bingley had found; trying to find any way around the demand.

"But that's not acceptable... That's not..." Neville was beginning to work up some emotion as it started to sink in what had to be done. "Can't..."

"It has to be murder. I have to die at the hands of another."

"No. No. No..." Ginny was moaning, clinging to Harry. Though clearly greatly troubled, Bingley had seemed so matter-of-fact that it had taken a while to accept the reality of what she had said.

"You're lying, Professor," said Hermione quietly. She was over at the far end of the room, holding Bingley's notes. Now it was Hermione's turn to be stared at.

Bingley sagged. She did not protest. She knew the game was up. She sat down and put her face in her hands and started to cry as if one burden had been exchanged for another. But she was not crying for herself.

"There's nothing about a leader here," explained Hermione. "The main part is just roughly, A human life must be given to pass. No lesser payment will suffice. Blood must be generously spilt. One must die at the hands of another."

"Don't you see?" said Bingley. "It makes more sense if it is me. My youngest child is nearly nineteen; my eldest nearly thirty. My family will manage without me. I'm so often absent anyway. But you all have your lives ahead of you..."

"One of us has to kill another one of us?" said Ginny faintly.

Rolf spontaneously went over and took Luna in his arms. They looked into each other's eyes. They did not speak but it was if they were at some terrible chasm and they could not, dare not, leave their feelings for each other unexpressed in case there would never be another chance. It was a strange kiss that then possessed them, joined them. It was deeply felt, filled with intense elation and joy but mixed with a terrible sorrow. "I only ever really needed that one date, Luna," smiled Rolf, "but I'd still like lots more."

Luna looked at Rolf, her eyes shining. "Rolf... Whatever happens... I can't... I just can't..."

"I know. Me too. I don't know if I've got the courage to sacrifice myself. But even so I really don't think I could... kill anyone here." Rolf whispers went even softer on the last few words. "But whatever happens... It can never be you... I could never harm you, Luna. Not even to save the world with you in it."

"Nor I," said Luna quietly. "And if Ron and Hermione - they probably feel the same. And Harry and Ginny... And how could anyone face the others after? It hurts to think about it Rolf."

"That's what that wicked, evil..."

"It's ridiculous. Absurd!" Neville said loudly. "There must be some other way! Hermione! Show me!" He went over and grabbed the notes from Hermione but they were meaningless to him and after a minute he subsided and sullenly gave them back.

"Can't you check them again?" he yelled angrily at her. "I mean... We don't want to find out after 'Oh sorry, it means something else.' It can't mean what you say. It just can't."

Hermione went back into the other room to recheck the runes but more to escape Neville than with any real hope. Everyone else was too numb to move or even speak much as they contemplated the horror of what had to be done.

"It's a scary thing, to lay down your life," said Harry. "It's not easy to bring yourself to do it. But now I know... I'm not afraid of death anymore."

"No Harry!" cried Ginny, pulling herself close to him. "Please don't!" She looked around desperately, hoping someone else would volunteer. Her eyes finally fell on Draco but then she saw he was lost in some inner torment.

Feya had gone over to Bingley. She clutched her arm to attract her attention. Bingley jerked upright with a cry and looked down in alarm at the little house-elf. She rubbed her arm as if in pain.

Feya did not seem to notice. She pointed at herself without speaking.

"Bless you Feya," said Bingley. "But no - it has to be a human. It has to be a human wizard both as murderer and victim. I think Voldemort wanted to make sure nobody just sacrificed a chicken or a rat or something."

"It's difficult for someone to sacrifice themself..." said Luna softly. "But to... The one who has to do it... That's terrible... Young or old."

"Where's Miss Vablatsky?" asked Harry suddenly.

Everyone looked around.

"Hermione!" screamed Ron as he threw himself towards the pit room immediately followed by the others.

Hermione was down in the pit examining the runes again. The old woman was descending down quietly beside her. She held something in her hand. She looked back at the others coming into the room and her hoarse laughter rang out.

"The solution is so very simple my dears." she cackled. She was pulling the grating closed over them.

Ron made a dive but was too late. He banged on the grating with the flat of his hand then began tugging at it.

"Let her out of there! What do you think your doing!" he shouted. "Ginny! Ginny! How did you get this open before?"

Ginny ran over and soon there were several of them trying to open the grating but it was unmoving. Hermione was staring up at them, only just realizing what had happened after being completely absorbed in the runes again. The old woman grabbed her by the arm and clung tightly, painfully. Hermione winced and tried to break her grip but the old woman seemed to have great strength and there was nowhere to move away in the confined space. "Get off me!"

"Get off her you hag!" yelled Ron then, seeing something in the woman's other hand, something glinting, he screamed at her. "Let her go! Let her go! I'll kill you I swear!"

Down in the gloom they saw in the woman's hand what seemed to be a large claw - a dragon claw. She struck out at Hermione's neck and drew spots of blood along a deep scratch. Hermione shrieked and struggled to push the woman away but the crone had dropped the claw and was now holding onto Hermione with both hands in an unbreakable grip. "There is absolutely nothing you can do about this now is there my dear? You're helpless you see." The old witch giggled through cracked and blackened teeth. She sounded more and more excited and deranged.

Everyone had crowded around above and watched in despair as Hermione slumped weakly down onto the stone altar. Ron, who was already crouching, seemed to slump with her. He looked around desperately at the others. "Professor? ... Harry ... Help her please."

"There. It's not so bad is it my dear?" said the old woman but Hermione was whimpering and sobbing quietly. The woman released her grip yet Hermione seemed too helplessly weak to move. The woman straightened her up on the altar like a child arranging her ragdoll on a toy bed. She placed Hermione's hands together as if in prayer. Her finger moved slightly. Her head turned a little. Her eyes rolled back and forth from the woman and up to Ron. But otherwise, Hermione was weaker than a newborn kitten.

From her robes the woman drew yet another implement; something that flashed brightly even in the gloom of the non-magical pit. It was a slim, silver knife.

Ron moaned, defeated. "Do me. Do me instead. Please Miss Vablatsky... Cassandra, use me instead. Please..." But the old woman seemed not to hear. She stared at the blade in her hand with great anticipation.

Rolf had dashed back to his long bag in the other room and returned with a tent pole. He pushed through the others and began thrusting it at the grid but the gaps were too small for the pole to go through to push the woman to one side. The grid did not even move.

"Knife! Knife! Sharpen it!" Harry ran back with Rolf and they were throwing things out of Hermione's bag.

"Accio knife!" shouted Harry. He hacked at the hardened wood of the pole desperately and groaned loudly as he saw how long the task would take. Ron was looking back at them but torn - he did not want to leave Hermione. He looked down into her eyes.

The old woman looked up and gave a harsh laugh. "Don't you see? Don't you understand? It's the only way. Why make such a fuss? It had to be someone."

She leaned close, pushed the handle of the silver dagger between Hermione's two clasped hands and grasped those hands reverently within her own. With a swift movement Cassandra Vablatsky pulled the silver blade, still clutched by Hermione, towards herself and plunged it into her own heart.

With a shriek the old witch fell backwards onto the altar which now seemed to be slowly descending deeper. The wand lights, those shining spheres they had placed earlier above the grating, suddenly all flared fully, illuminating the whole scene below in vivid detail: the altar collapsing into the floor; Hermione's white, tear-streaked face staring up at Ron imploringly; the old woman shrieking and squirming in pain against her; scarlet blood spraying, pumping out over the young girl and down onto the cold stone.

Seeing the release of the curse that drained all magic, Bingley grasped at the grating and, urging everyone back, she flung it open.

Ron was first down there to grab hold of Hermione whose body, along with the old woman's was spilling down over what appeared to be slowly lowering steps. The altar was seven stone pieces each descending to form a stair.

Ron hugged Hermione close, pulling her away from the old woman's bloody body and her cries and screams of pain.

"Help me! Oh help me!" Miss Vablatsky was pleading. She shrieked and cried, twisted and turned in agony, but her movements were getting weaker. "Please make it stop!"

Luna was at her side. She raised her wand.

"No! No! don't help me! You can't help me! You mustn't help me!" cried the old woman weakly then she added in a softer voice, "I had hoped to die with a little dignity. I'm sorry but the pain is so bad. I foresaw the pain - not my cowardice."

Luna dropped her wand and took the old lady's hands in hers. She spoke quietly to the old woman. "There is no greater dignity than to give your life for the world."

The old woman's eyes seemed to lose their focus and stared past Luna into the distance.

"But I'm so frightened," breathed Cassandra Vablatsky softly. She sounded like a scared little girl reaching out to her mother but it was her very last breath. She relaxed back and life was released from her anguished body.

Luna gently closed the old lady's eyes. "There. You're not frightened anymore. You're with friends."




Chapter 25: Trust
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Rolf and Luna carefully wrapped the old lady's body in a large travel cloak from Hermione's bag which Neville had retrieved from the bloody mire. Neville's thoughts were drawn back to the cold misty morning in the field near Hogsmeade with its rope portkey on the stump. It seemed so long ago and in another world that he had worn that cloak. He began to wonder if they would ever see home again. Neville's daydreaming was ended when Rolf spoke softly to Luna.

"Best we can do for her for now."

There was no golden coffin nor white marble pedestal in the corridor befitting the laying out of the body of one whose heroism might help save the world; there was not even a stone bench. They had laid the wrapped body on the dusty floor next to a wall. Luna had conjured a wreath and laid it reverently against the shrouded form of Miss Vablatsky. Then she moved her wand slowly over the body and paused in thought for a while.

"Perhaps later..." said Luna quietly.

Ron Weasley held Hermione close. Though she was awash with Cassandra Vablatsky's blood, he carried her in his arms away from the dead body down the corridor below the altar room in which they now found themselves. He looked urgently for a place to rest her down where he might comfort her and cleanse her of the gore - to wash away the horror and put it behind them.

A glint of light caught Ron's eye and he became aware that Hermione still held the little silver knife, trapped loosely between her hands. Not having a hand free of his own, he slowly crouched, lowering her naturally to rest on his lap, and steadied her with one arm while he gently prised away the fatal blade and laid it aside. He felt her eyes on him and looking into them he was surprised to see that the distress of her terrifying ordeal seemed much diluted and dispersed and was replaced by a look of tenderness that melted his heart, relaxed his stony expression, and raised his spirit.

If Ron changed in that moment, if he took one step closer in this, his most precious relationship, then Hermione did too. To know with certainty that her man, so clumsy and awkward emotionally, was not only willing but desperate to die in her stead, bound her closer to him in love.

The moment passed though its effect remained. Ron stood up, taller yet humbled. He could see that further ahead the corridor came to an abrupt end but there was a doorway on the right. When he reached it and looked through, he stopped.

"What is it, Ron? What's wrong?" said Professor Bingley. Rolf and Luna looked up. Ron was still holding Hermione; still standing looking through the side doorway half way down the corridor.

"Trap. Looks like a trap," said Ron.

Several wands came out as the others advanced cautiously to Ron's side to see for themselves.

"Food. It's food." said Neville, sniffing the air and smelling a pleasant mix of aromas.

It was more than food. They were looking into a medieval-style banqueting hall of nearly forty paces in length. Down the centre of much of that length stretched an oak table generously supporting many and varied foods set on ornate dishes and all surrounded with every kind of utensil and condiment and sauces necessary to satisfy the most extreme gluttony. Pushing up through every gap were raised stands boasting trays of sweetbreads, puddings, confections, cakes, ices, and biscuits. All looked fresh, colourful, and tempting.

The walls were thickly decorated with shields and weapons and armour - too thickly for good taste - while portraits of unknown knights, ladies, nobles, and supposed leaders of men, haughtily held their place amongst them. There were more doors than one might expect for such a hall, each with carved frames and ornate handles. Recessed from the centre of one long wall and half its length was a more softly-lit sitting area. Within this, a wide stone fireplace glowed with a large log fire that crackled and sparked a homely welcome. It made everyone realize how cool the air had been since they had descended below the altar room. Several brass-studded, brown leather armchairs and settees faced these cheery flames to tempt the weary visitor.

The whole room, with its lavishly thick carpetting and extravagant wall-torch fittings, seemed to the visitors to be slightly surreal, like an immoderate and tasteless stage set, but perhaps that was because of the harsh monotony of the preceding areas in this building.

Above all of this, above the thick horizontal oak beams that bridged the width of the hall, the ceiling yielded to a great vertical shaft, almost three quarters the length and width of the hall. The shaft disappeared upwards out of sight of those at the doorway but gave the room an airy, open feeling that was very agreeable after the claustrophic corridors and rooms they had passed through.

"It's a baited trap," said Ron. "Don't go in that room."

"We can't stay out here forever," said Harry.

"Professor, we need to talk," said Luna.

"Yes Luna, we do," replied Bingley.

Luna strode confidently past Ron and into the banquet hall.

"What you doing, Luna! We need to think a bit," said Ron. "It might be a trap."

"I don't think it's an ordinary trap, Ron. I think it's a not-trap," said Luna, looking around, eyes wide. "I've never seen one before. They're very interesting really. In a way, everywhere else is a trap except the not-trap."

Ron raised one eyebrow at Hermione in his arms, shrugged, then carried her in after Luna.

"What's a not-trap then, Luna?" said Harry as he followed them with the others coming in more hesitantly behind. It was too soon after the death of the old witch for Harry to see any humour in Luna's odd phrasings.

"Well it's obvious isn't it? It's a test. They're all tests," said Luna.

"I don't think we should eat anything until we're sure," said Ron, looking around for a place to help Hermione.

"Ron's right. For now, nobody touch the food." Bingley raised her wand and concealed the table contents and their attractive smells.

Luna looked carefully at the various doors then up to the huge shaft above them. Everyone followed her gaze. Far up the shaft they could see the sky. It was still night time.

"Is the sky real?" said Ginny. "Reminds me of Hogwarts."

Draco dropped himself down in the chair nearest the fire and stared into the flames. His mind still seemed distant but the near normality of this room, compared to what had come before, seemed to have re-invigorated him at least a little. Before he was adrift; now he had something familiar to cling to. The others began to join him. Luna watched, remaining near the table. Rolf and Feya stayed with her.

Ron scowled at the back of Draco's head and found a two-seater on the other side of the fireplace as far away from him as possible. He laid Hermione down carefully on the seats and knelt by her side.

"How you feeling?" he asked.

Hermione managed a weak smile and a near-inaudible whisper which Ron took to be, "Been better." She raised her thumb, a muggle gesture unknown to Ron but it gave him hope that whatever restricted her movement was fading. Bingley confirmed this. Her wand detected no magical effects but the scratch on Hermione's neck revealed a temporary weakening poison whose effect would pass within a few hours.

Luna spoke. It had the air of an announcement. She seemed to have lost her usual serene, dreamy appearance and spoke with authority and great seriousness.

"There are ten doors down one side of the room. There are five chairs down each side of the table. There are ten seats here before the hearth and we are ten in number. This room knows about us," she said.

She went to one of the side doors, opened it and looked through before anyone could protest.

"It's a bedroom. They will all be bedrooms."

Rolf watched Luna with mixed feelings. He could see that this expedition was maturing her but he was concerned that the emotional pains were taking a severe toll. He did not wish to lose the quirky, relaxed, unfazable young woman with whom he so recently fell in love. She seemed cold and full of foreboding. He wished he could see her smile again. She was younger than the others. She ought not to have the burden of having to advise them, of having them rely on her.

"I see where you're going with this, Luna," said Bingley. "It doesn't add up. None of it adds up. Why was there already blood around the altar but no bodies below it? Why put runes to tell us how to get through? Why would Voldemort have access to his own shelter through the route we have taken?"

"This room is not his shelter," said Luna. "Voldemort never came this way. Why would he? I believe he would instead have crossed the fire grid and straight through the black doorway to his shelter. If Lestraithe had not betrayed us and led the Voldemort inferius away then that is what would have happened to us. Instead, we were cursed with fear and the void and diverted to the altar room."

"Then what is all this?" asked Neville.

"It's a character sieve. Voldemort knew there would be others seeking him out, seeking to join the Death Eaters and to escape the effects of the world curse. He would be delighted to accept the worthy - those he viewed as worthy - to join him. This place filters out the unworthy.

"And what happens to the unworthy?" asked Ron, then seeing Luna's look he added, "Oh yeah, right." He drew his hand horizontally across his throat.

"They're all trials don't you see? The fear curse in the sense void was to test Gryffindor courage. The sacrifice was to test our ruthless ambition - that we would be willing to use any means to achieve our aims, even kill one of our own."

"Slytherin!" It was Malfoy who spoke. For the first time since they had entered this grim building his face began to look animated and excited. The colour had come back to his cheeks. He started to look around as if he were just becoming aware of, and was now accepting, his surroundings.

"My belief," continued Luna, "is that this banquet room is to test Hufflepuff trust and loyalty."

"Trust in what?" asked Harry, but he already knew the answer.

"Trust in Lord Voldemort," replied Luna. "What greater trust is there than to eat and sleep in the house of your enemy?"

"I am not sleeping in this place," said Ginny adamantly, "What - so someone can cut our throats in the night? Not likely."

"But it's a not-trap. If you're not trapped then you're really trapped don't you see?

"Hang on," said Harry, "wouldn't anyone eat and sleep eventually? I mean, there's nowhere else to go. If you were stuck here all week then eventually everyone would fall asleep and everyone would eventually eat something rather than starve."

"That is why I think we must not delay," said Luna. "We must not show reluctance and doubt."

"What!" said Rolf, "We must hurry to eat and sleep? I agree with Ron. It's a trap and these are lures. I've set enough animal traps myself to recognize one. I vote we eat only our own food and take it in turns to sleep - always have several of us on watch."

"Then we remain here forever," said Luna, "or rather, until our food runs out."

"Why would Voldemort test for Gryffindors, Hufflepuffs..." said Ginny.

"Voldemort had no objections to some of the qualities of the other three houses," said Bingley, nodding her head to confirm she thought Luna was correct. "He respected courage, loyalty, and intelligence as well as hard ambition. His ideal recruits would include some degree of all of the qualities in one but not love, nobility, and compassion - they would not normally get past the murder test. But it never occurred to Voldemort that someone might sacrifice themself in the way that Miss Vablatsky did."

"Suppose we eat the food and go to sleep?" said Harry. "What then?"

"I think then we would be allowed to proceed." Luna looked the length of the long room towards the far wall. There were two more doors there of a different design to the others that she had not yet investigated. She walked towards them. The one on the right was of rugged steel plate with deep metal bands. Her wand revealed that dark magic bound this door and kept it securely locked. The door on the left was of rough-hewn elm with a simple iron drop latch. It opened to her touch to reveal a shocking scene.

Luna viewed the interior with dismay, staying within the doorway. Her body seemed to sag and Rolf strode forward to be quickly at her side. The windowless room was littered with straw bedding and unlit except for the flickering light that spilled in from the main hall wall torches. There was a crude trough of dirty water. Laying against it was an animal. It was a young thestral. Seeing the visitors it mouthed a near silent wail - a keening that could be felt rather than heard. It was a call of distress.

"It's in terrible pain," said Luna walking to crouch at the animal's side.

"No food! It's not been fed properly," said Rolf sternly, looking around. He hated to see animals mistreated.

Everyone but Ron and Hermione had joined them to see where the doorway had led. Bingley came forward to check the animal magically. She pronounced it cursed.

"It's not just lack of food. There is a terrible enchantment on this creature. I cannot think what its purpose is except to cause pain," she said.

"Its purpose is to trap the compassionate," said Luna, sadly.

"Luna, we have no choice but to... to end its life... to ease its suffering," said Bingley. "I cannot break this curse and we cannot get it to a sanctuary."

"That might be... the wrong thing to do..." said Luna. Her expression was now very grim. She carressed the neck of the trembling creature as tenderly as she could.

"The looney's right for once!" It was Draco. "That can get us out of here! It's obvious isn't it? One of us flies up the shaft on it to get help! I'll do it!"

"Yeah right! Do you seriously think we'd let you just fly away?" said Harry.

"I've no wand and it could carry two people. We're less than a minute from the surface on that thing!" said Draco.

"It's weak with hunger. It couldn't even carry one at the moment," said Rolf. "Have we got any fresh meat? They only eat raw meat."

"There may be a little uncooked pork left that we immobilized," said Neville. "I'll check but I think it's only a few mouthfuls."

"Don't waste our own food! It's the victims you use!" said Draco and he laughed drily. "The Dark Lord was so... He's out-thought all of you!"

"What you talking about, Draco?" said Harry angrily.

"Whoever comes through here has to have killed someone at the altar right? So then they can see thestrals because they've seen someone die. Then they're supposed to feed the victim to this thing so that it's strong enough to escape on. It's awesome!"

Bingley already was already restraining Harry but it was Rolf who staggered Draco with a vicious blow to his jaw. Draco remained down on one knee. He felt that if he stood up he might only get knocked down again.

"We should have left you in the void." growled Rolf, staying with Draco, towering over him and with his fist still clenched.

Neville had returned but with only a pitiful amount of raw pork which he handed to Luna. She tried to feed it gently to the thestral. Neville watched sadly as it struggled to swallow. He saw its feeble frame quivering in pain and turned away

"I'll see if I can find more," said Neville but there was a feeling that he knew he would not find any and simply could not face seeing the creature's continuing torment. He went sadly back into the hall.

The thestral had swallowed the small amount of food gratefully and was looking around for more. There was a faint bleating sound from its throat or perhaps it was imagined because its mouth moved and if there was any sound it was very faint.

Luna's was now very distraught. Intelligence and reason could not serve her here. She alone saw the two cruel choices that faced them. She alone had the vision to realize why the thestral was there. Luna rose and clung to Rolf and her chest was heaving with emotion. "Help me. I don't know what to do. Tell me what to do."

"You have to do it, Draco," said Bingley, pulling him to his feet. "You're probably the only one here who can perform the killing curse."

Draco rubbed his jaw and looked at her angrily. "Don't you understand? That's our way out of here! I'm never going to kill it."

Neville had returned. In his hand he held a war axe from the decorations in the hall. He stepped forward before anyone could object and with a swift stroke it was over. He flung the axe down. The straw was bloody. Bingley gathered a fresh pile and threw it over the thestral's neck and severed head.

"It was the right thing to do. It was the only thing to do. I'd rather we all die than see that suffering continue." Neville walked out.

Draco stared after him. There was fury in his expression but he could do nothing.

"We have to do what Luna said - and we have to hurry," said Bingley. She went out into the hall and released the spells over the table to reveal the food.

"I don't think anyone could eat right now, Professor," said Harry.

"We must! The longer we delay, the less trusting we are! Don't you see?" Bingley turned to address everyone who had now rejoined them in the hall. She spoke loudly enough so that even Ron and Hermione could hear her words in the alcove. "If you had a guest who showed reluctance to eat your food and sleep in your home you would get suspicious would you not?"

"I think we need only eat a tiny amount." Luna was speaking very softly, leaning against Rolf who had his arm around her supportively. "Just a token... and..."

"And what, Luna?" asked Bingley.

Luna was staring at the table contents. "We must all sleep at the same time and separately - so we're at our most vulnerable and with nobody on watch."

"There's no way I can sleep yet," said Harry. "I doubt we can get all ten of us asleep at the same time anyway."

"We can with those," said Luna, pointing at the potion bottles, one of which was positioned at every place setting.

"Sleeping draughts!" said Draco eagerly. "He thought of everything."

"So we're all fast asleep and completely helpless," said Ginny. "How are we supposed to protect ourselves?"

"We do not need to protect ourselves," said Draco. "We must put our faith and trust completely in the Dark Lord."

"Stuff your dark lord!" shouted Ron from over near the fireplace. He had used the Tergeo spell to cleanse Hermione's clothing and his own. He was helping her to drink from one of their own water flagons.

"No, Draco's right," said Luna, "We must trust Voldemort... if we are to continue..."

"I'll eat the damn food if I have to... and... and drink the sleeping potion," said Neville. "But I'll never, ever, trust that foul dark wizard, dead or alive."

"But you will be, Neville, won't you?" said Luna. "If he has willed it, then he may have chosen to kill us all in our sleep. The potion itself may be false. There may be other curses..."

"What do you believe, Luna?" asked Harry.

Luna looked at Harry and said steadily, "I am sure that he intends that those of us who eat his food and sleep at his mercy will be allowed to proceed."

"Then I'll put my trust in you, Luna," said Harry. He thrust a small piece of fruit into his mouth and swallowed. Then taking and uncorking one of the potions, he raised it high.

"Trust in Luna!" he said in defiance of Voldemort. He drank it down and turned to Ginny. She looked at him and whispered.

"Can I... be with you..."

"We must all be alone," cautioned Luna quietly, tugging at Ginny's sleeve.

Ginny hesitated then grabbed angrily at some food and ate it quickly. Others followed her example.

"Trust in Luna!" Many raised their potions in the toast. With eyes looking upwards or upon Luna, nobody noticed the wary look in Draco's eyes. Nobody noticed that though he tilted his sleeping potion fully to his lips he only took in a few sips. And nobody noticed him slip away to dispose of the contents of his almost full potion vial. Nobody that is, except one person who was watching everything extra carefully.

Each was urged to a separate bedroom by Bingley and it was she that checked that each was fast asleep before she too drank a potion, lay down alone, and whispered quietly to herself, "Trust in Luna!"

~~~~~~~~~~~~


Harry Potter yawned. He groped for his glasses on the little table at the side of his warm, comfortable bed. While adjusting them blindly round his ears and on the bridge of his nose, he was wondering what lessons were scheduled for that day. Then, as the room came into focus, he woke fully and sat upright with a jolt. He swung out of bed, dressed quickly, and ran into the hall. None of the other doors were open yet. He hurried into the next bedroom and was relieved to see Ginny fast asleep. He sat on the edge of her bed smiling. He sat there for a minute or two still with the smile on his face.

"Hey! Sleepy head! Time to wake up!"

Ginny stirred, "Wassup? Go 'way." Then she too sat suddenly half upright, staring around her and particularly at Harry.

"You're OK," she said, sounding almost surprised.

"You?"

"Yeah."

"I see your pendant is a lovely warm yellow when you're asleep..."

"How long you been there?" asked Ginny with mock shyness.

"Hours and hours," smiled Harry.

"I'll let you get dressed." Harry went out to check on the others before he forgot what he was there for.

"Best sleep I've had for a while," said Neville as he greeted Harry.

Luna went unnoticed to check the metal door to the right of the thestral's stable. It was now unlocked. She opened it, peered through, went through it briefly, then came back into the hall. She closed the door and quietly rejoined the others.

Ron was leading Hermione out of her room. She was walking but leaning on him - perhaps more closely than she needed to but Ron was not protesting.

"How are you, Hermione?" asked Harry.

"Weak," smiled Hermione, "What's for breakfast?"

"That's what I like to hear!" said Ron brightly. "I've only had a bite since... I don't know when. You reckon this stuff is safe to eat now then?"

"Reckon so," said Harry.

There was a generally almost merry atmosphere now. Everyone was quick to blank out their difficulties when they were not immediately in front of them - especially when the most recent one had now been overcome. Armfuls of food and drink had been carried to the hearth and all were enjoying a good meal. Feya was scurrying about helping so she was happy. Only Luna sat quietly, eating slowly and thoughtfully with Rolf at her side.

"You alright, Luna?" asked Harry.

Luna looked up but remained silent.

"OK, better tell us," sighed Harry, putting down his plate.

"Perhaps everyone should enjoy their breakfast first don't you think?" said Luna quietly.

"Better tell us," said Harry again, more firmly.

"I think it may be a maze - the final task," said Luna. "I'm not sure. I expected something where we'd need..." She stopped abruptly.

"You've been..." Neville started to say. He jumped to his feet. "You've been out!" He ran to the steel door at the far end of the hall.

"Don't go far, Neville!" Luna called after him. "Stop him, Harry."

Harry ran after Neville who was looking through the opened doorway at a sombre grey stone corridor with a couple of turnings at the end forming a 'T' junction. The stones that made up the walls, floor, and ceiling were all large squares and arranged symmetrically in line like giant tiles. This design produced a strange and unsettling appearance of precise geometric units that felt to Harry like being inside enormous folded graph paper. There was something small lying on the floor at the left turning of the junction.

"What is that?" Harry stepped cautiously along the corridor to see.

"It's a... I think it's a tent peg. One of Rolf's tent pegs..." said Neville. He looked down the left turning.

"There's another," he said. He started to move towards it but Harry pulled him back.

"Wait till we hear what Luna's got to say."

Neville nodded. There was something sinister about their find and the corridors were cold and unwelcoming. They could hear the talking and the clatter of cutlery on plates and dishes from the hall. It drew them back to the fireplace breakfast.

"Corridors with turnings is all we could see," said Neville, "and these." He put the tent peg down on the hearth in front of everyone.

"That's mine!" said Rolf, reaching for it. "Where'd you get it?" He stood up, looking round for his bags and only seeing one of them.

"It's gone," said Luna. "He's gone."

"Who?" said about three different people at once, looking around.

"Draco!" cried Bingley. "If that fool has run off..."

Luna was nodding. "He got up early. He probably didn't drink much potion. It's likely he planned this."

"But you mean, he's got my other bag? What for?" said Rolf.

"Partly revenge. You did hit him rather hard didn't you?" said Luna, "But also for bread crumbs. I don't think they'll work though. Too easy." Luna sighed. "Better check your wands."

Harry looked very alarmed and was checking his wand was safe as did the others as they realized they had all been at Draco's mercy.

Rolf paced irritably up and down for a while. He could be heard muttering to himself, "My compass and scalar are in that bag..." and "second time my bag's been stolen."

"Bread crumbs?" said Ron.

"It's a muggle fairy story," said Hermione. "Hansel and Gretal. They dropped bread crumbs through the woods so they could find their way back but the birds ate them."

"No birds here." said Ginny.

"Expect they won't work though," said Luna.

"Why?" asked Harry.

"I don't know. Everything so far has been so very difficult. Anyone can drop bread crumbs," said Luna. "Best finish our breakfast. We may need all our strength."

"But we're supposed to get through, right?" said Neville. "What you said, Luna. Voldemort just set tests but they're solveable right?"

Luna remained silent.

"Loo-na?" smiled Harry in a friendly, coaxing voice. "Come clean. What aren't you telling us."

"The thestral was meant to lead us through. That's what they do. They take you where you want to go."

The conversation lapsed and everyone continued to eat their breakfast silently. A new log settled itself on top of the fire from somewhere and the flames burnt more brightly, warming their feet if not their hearts. Neville in particular was despondent.

"You did the right thing, Neville." The soft voice was Hermione's. "It wasn't the sensible or logical thing to do - but it was the right one."

Slowly the conversations picked up again.

"Listen, we've done Gryffindor courage, Slytherin villainy, Hufflepuff trust, so the next is Ravenclaw cleverness," said Ron, crunching down his last bacon rasher and reaching for the huge pile of treacle fudge, chocolate frogs, and cauldron cakes he had scooped from the banquet table. "It's just a maze. How hard can it be? You'll figure it out Luna."

"You're not going to eat all that now are you Ron?" sighed Hermione.

"Well... no, but I thought I'd make a start," said Ron.

"I already did solve it, Ron," said Luna. "The thestral was to lead us out."

"It's still only a maze though," muttered Ron defiantly through a mouthful of fudge.

"Ron," said Hermione, "it's not likely to be an ordinary maze is it?"

"Well, anything's better than that void or having to kill someone and.... Well actually this one isn't too bad once you know what to do," Ron mumbled incoherently as he stuffed a chocolate frog into his mouth.

"Neville, Harry, Rolf, if you've finished eating come with me," said Professor Bingley. I want to look at the first two corners. We have to work out a plan." They went out through the steel door but left it open. Their voices could be heard drifting back from time to time.

Ron could see Hermione had a faraway look in her eyes.

"Still thinking about..."

"Yes."

"She went a bit crazy at the end didn't she?" said Ron.

"I think Miss Vablatsky was hysterical with fear. I don't know how she managed to do it. She must have foreseen she was going to do this a long time ago. Even though she was a hundred years old I don't think she was really ready to die," said Hermione. "I wish I'd spent more time talking with her."

"Yeah but, she might have made it easier for you though," said Ron.

"She would never have got me to agree to what she did. For me to willingly let her do that would be for me to help murder her. If she hadn't have used the weakening poison - well, that was the only way." Hermione paused. "She thought it was obvious. She didn't realize we all thought she was going to take my life not hers."

"I think she was trying to make you into a murderer though," said Ron, then he added hastily, "- but you're not!"

"No she wasn't - just the opposite. I think she was trying to tell me that I was helpless so I couldn't possibly be responsible. She was trying to make sure I understood so I didn't feel guilty. All the altar curse needed was for someone to die at someone else's hands. The runes did not specify murder - though that's what was intended. You see the runes themselves were the curse - but not ideally written. That's the thing with rune curses - if you don't word them right they can have loopholes. Poor Miss Vablatsky must have known... I would very much like..." She turned to Luna who had been listening quietly to their conversation.

"Luna, if it is ever possible, I would very much like to pay my respects... That is, if there can be a funeral service..."

"I hope so too. I put an immobilizing charm and a magical trace on Miss Vablatsky. I hope we can find her again and give her a proper burial."

Hermione looked at Ginny but Ginny turned her head away. "I'll see how the others are getting along," she said and walked quickly off towards the steel door. Harry saw her coming and met her in the doorway.

"Ginny," whispered Harry. He sounded very worried. "I didn't want to speak before the others. Did you borrow my wand - the elder wand?"

"It's gone?" replied Ginny anxiously then in a loud whisper, "Draco? He's took your wand?"

"That's what I was afraid of," sighed Harry. "We daren't tell anyone but... well, we may have to if..."

"If the bloody Death Eaters get the elder wand, Oh Harry! I wish I'd never brought it along now." Ginny was very alarmed.

"I'm not. Frankly I don't think we'd have survived without it." Harry paused. "I still have my own wand. We have to just act normally for now and hope we can catch up with Draco. He's on his own in a maze that troubles even Luna so what chance has he got? Anyway, he doesn't know what the wand is and he's not master of it anyway. We can take him by surprise."

"Yes, but it's still the most powerful wand in the world and it's awesome what it can do whoever uses it."

"We'll have to worry about it later," said Harry. They went to join Bingley, Neville, and Rolf through the maze doorway. Ron and Hermione watched them go.

"I think Ginny's a bit... embarassed, even ashamed, because she hated Miss Vablatsky so much," said Hermione quietly. "Bit like you Ron with... Professor Snape."

"I can't forgive him for all the nasties he did to Harry and me and you - mostly Harry got the worst," said Ron.

"Yes, but he knew word would get back to Voldemort didn't he? Kids like Draco and other Slytherins would talk to their families about school like we did too. Imagine if word had got back to his lordship that Professor Snape was being nice to Harry. He had to be convincing."

"Yes but he enjoyed it. It was real. He hated Harry and me," said Ron. "I can never forgive him for all those years. Can you? Things he called you? 'Insufferable know-it-all' or something wasn't it? Then that tooth curse thing - 'can't see any difference.' I could have killed him. Me and Harry got detention and docked fifty points for swearing at him..."

"I never knew that!" said Hermione.

"You'd run off crying..."

"You stuck up for me? You took a detention for me?" said Hermione with a smile and a quick kiss on Ron's cheek. "You were my hero even then Ron Weasley. You cared for me all that time ago?"

Ron only blushed a little. "Well, yeah, I... well... It was cruel what he said. I can't stop hating him when I think of things like that he did. All I remember is those years - not what he did to spy for Dumbledore."

"That's it. It's just habit. You can't switch it off because you saw all the hundreds of bad things he did and none of the good," said Hermione.

"Can you? Switch it off I mean?" asked Ron.

"I'm... not sure. I... feel a bit sorry for him," said Hermione, falteringly.

Luna rescued her from the uncomfortable question by steering the conversation in a new direction.

"He wasn't as bad as the other Death Eaters even when he was headmaster," she said. "I wonder how many more there are."

"Death Eaters? You think there are more? In here you mean?" said Ron.

"Perhaps. To run things don't you think?" she said. "Or they might be imaginary - like those you saw in the woods that attacked Harry. I wonder how they did that?"

"Oh, there are one or two spells they could use I suppose," said Hermione. She laughed. "Think of the fun you could have distracting a Death Eater then you sneak behind..."

"Like Geminio perhaps?" interrupted Luna.

"No - that's not nearly powerful enough to duplicate a person," said Hermione. "Well, it might make an image I suppose but risky and it would be stupid and quickly fade. It would need a powerful wizard. It's harder to duplicate complex objects especially magical ones just using Geminio."

"Like your bag you mean?"

"Yes, that's right."

"Show me. Might be useful to have another bag like yours."

"It's not going to work," said Hermione but she attempted it anyway. She picked up the duplicate and opened it then turned it inside out.

"See it's just an ordinary bag." She threw it onto the fire but just before it reached the flames Luna retrieved it using the summoning charm. She examined it superficially but then she did not throw it into the fire. Instead she slipped it down to the floor at her side.

"May I try?" said Luna. Hermione gave Luna her bag and Luna used the Geminio spell but this new copy was also empty.

"Oh well, it's a nice bag anyway. May I keep it?" said Luna.

"Yes, of course. You made it," said Hermione. "But it won't last forever and you've already got your own bag."

Luna pushed her own bag inside the new one and transfigured the new one to match her green shoes. Then she added a silver 'L' and lots of purple dots. "Makes a nice change don't you think?" She was not smiling.

Ron and Hermione laughed at each other, "Definitely dotty!"

As Luna leaned forward to hand back Hermione's bag she kicked the duplicate that Hermione had made under her own chair. Luna was busy seeing what else she could cram in her bag when Harry and the others returned.

"Hermione, what you got in your bag we could try as bread crumbs? We have to try different things," said Harry.

"Well... erm... I suppose we could sacrifice some books - page by page." said Hermione reluctantly then she saw the look of astonishment on Ron and Harry's faces.

"Have you got a fever or something, Hermione?" laughed Ron. "Hermione Granger ripping up books! I must see that!"

"Well... they're only books after all," said Hermione. "I'll replace them when we get back to Hogsmeade."

Harry was studying Luna's expression. She had been listening silently to Ron and Hermione and looked quite forlorn.

"You don't think we'll make it back to Hogsmeade do you Luna?" said Harry quietly.

"I don't think there's any logical way to get through the maze," she replied.

"Come on, Luna," said Bingley firmly, "It's not like you to be so negative. Let's consider the possibilities. Come on, everyone. Ideas, please. Hermione?"

"First, I can enlarge the book pages, thicken each one to form a kind of big solid block. They'll be more visible and won't get blown away," said Hermione. "Then if we place them in the mouth of every corner we turn... Oh, we can also lay them so the top of the page is the direction - and the page numbers can help us as well if we put them in order! And different books for different branches of the maze!"

"We should make sketch maps as well. I can do that," said Rolf. "Build up a complete picture of the maze as we go along as well as the corridors we've already been down. I'll have to use the four-point spell though. That bloody fool took my magi-compass."

"And the Flagrate charm as well - we can place arrows and numbers against the walls to indicate where we've been," said Hermione. "Mmm... but it depends how long we take; they do not last forever."

"Well then we scratch or mark or burn the walls," said Ron. Harry immediately went to see if that was possible.

"Lights!" said Ginny. "We leave a light in every corridor we've been in!"

"A rope! Can we make a rope? I mean without binding anyone." said Hermione. "Can we cast some sort of rope spell? Is there such a thing? I never heard of one. Luna, what about the nothing thread?"

Luna gave a wan smile. We left it upstairs outside the void. We can get it but we can neither see it nor feel it. Nothing can be seen in the void, remember, but that's the only place that it can be seen."

"How'd that work anyway?" said Ron. "Makes no sense."

"The thread was woven from absence. It was nothing itself you see. It's simple really. Everywhere there is something - even a space is something; it has height and width and depth and even a location. But what we made was just the complete absence of anything knitted into a thread."

Ron struggled to understand but gave up. Hermione however, would not give up her idea of some kind of rope trail.

"But can we cast... What can we..." said Hermione.

"The light threads I cast before are not very long - a few corridors at most," said Bingley, "but we can place any number of them so yes, we should do that as well."

There was a small explosion from the direction of the maze entrance. Harry came back with smut marks and a sheepish grin on his face. "Sorry - I was trying to see if we could blast our way through the walls. No such luck. Anyway, at least we can scorch the walls. So long as..." He hesitated then turned to Luna.

"Luna, do you reckon - You don't think Voldemort would have sealed the maze do you? So there's no way out at all? I mean..."

"No, I'm sure he intends for the genuinely worthy to find a way through."

"Well then, we'll just have to be worthy!" said Ron. "So long as our food lasts and the maze isn't a thousand miles wide then we should be alright I reckon."

"I don't think the maze will be too big," said Luna. "I don't think that will be the problem."

"What then?" said Ginny. "Come on Luna, you're not coming up with any ideas."

"I'm sorry," said Luna. "I just didn't want to discourage everyone. I do have a couple of ideas - one of which Voldemort might not have thought of because it's something he cannot do himself."

"What's that?" said Harry.

"Cast a patronus. It might lead us back here as a last resort if all else fails."

"But that's a great idea!" said Rolf, "Expeditions often use a team patronus for emergencies."

"It would mean someone staying behind," said Luna. "It's my idea. I'm willing to stay."

"Absolutely not!" said Rolf firmly. "We stick together. That's only to lead someone back whose lost and can't cast a patronus themselves. Lots of us can cast patronuses so that's not a problem."

"But why can't a patronus lead us forward - lead us all the way through?" asked Ron.

"They can find a known person but they cannot lead anyone to an unknown place or person. It's rather like owls or apparating. That's why Feya cannot help us with this," said Luna.

"I forgot! Feya can get us completely out of this back to the surface!" exclaimed Ginny. turning to the little elf and grinning. "We're not trapped at all!"

"And then what? We still have to discover the source of the world curse and see if we can reverse it." said Bingley. She thought for a few moments. "Listen, that might be a good idea. If anyone wishes to return to safety then now might be a good time to do it."

Nobody spoke. Nobody that is except someone with a very tiny voice.

"Feya must not return," said Feya, shaking her little head.

"What!" said Rolf. "Why Feya?"

The little elf looked at Luna. "Feya still has... There is still something..."

"Feya must remain with us. Trust me about this," said Luna, helping Feya not to have to answer the awkward question, "and Rolf, you should forbid Feya to apparate others back to this room too," said Luna.

"But why?" asked Rolf.

"I'm not certain that this is real," said Luna, sweeping her arms around to indicate the entire banqueting hall.

Everyone stared back and forth the length of the room.

"You mean it's like the Room of Requirement? Except it would be Voldemort's requirements, not ours." mused Neville. "But the food... the thestral..."

"It might be partly real and it partly adapts to us. The food might be apparated in like the food at Hogwarts but it's all the foods that we like - someone else might have got different foods presented to them," said Luna. "Rolf, I'm afraid if Feya tried to apparate back here then there might not be anything here to come back to."

Rolf's eyes widened. "Feya, I forbid you to apparate back here. Understand?"

"Yes, Master Rolf, Feya understands," said the elf.

"But Luna, you were... Why did you say you would stay here?" asked Ginny.

"Well, we don't know for sure this room disappears completely. I didn't want to risk Feya but this room might remain in some form or other."

"Yeah and it might not!" said Ginny, "Why don't you... Don't you want to come with us?"

"I... that is..." said Luna very hesitantly. "Yes. Yes I do, very much. But I'd rather give you all the opportunity of following my patronus back here should you... should you wish."

"But we can send our own patronuses back here and follow them!" said Ron. "You forgot that didn't you!"

Luna remained silent.

"What was your other idea, Luna?" said Ginny.

"Five of us each make a list. Every time we turn left you add an 'L' to the end of your list and every time we turn right you add an 'R'. When we come to a dead end and have to go back then you can tell which way you came. You need to mark where you are though and do branch lists. It might not be easy."

"But why five people?"

"A single mistake could be awful," said Luna. "We should check each other I think. If three or four out of five entries agree then they are most likely the correct one. The odd one or two that disagree are much more likely to be errors so you don't use those."

"Also," continued Luna, "I do not think we should split up. It is important to stick together."

"Absolutely!" said Harry, "we'll stick together and support each other."

"Yes, but if anyone should get separated... get lost... It is a difficult thing to do but... we ought not to... search for them."

"Luna! We stick together," cried Ginny. She turned to the others. "Nobody goes wandering off no matter what, OK?"

There was mutual agreement on that point and the group turned to discussing other things. Ron wandered over to Luna. He was fiddling with something in his hand.

"Luna?"

"Yes, Ron?"

"I was wondering..." began Ron softly. "Oh, it's nothing. I..."

"What about supplies?" said Hermione.

"We've got food for days," said Bingley. "I think if the food from the table is real then we have enough for ten days or more."

"Ten days!" cried Ginny. "Surely it won't take us more than a few hours?"

"The sooner we start, the sooner we finish," said Bingley. "We've all had a good night's sleep. We're fresh..." She turned to Hermione.

"How are you feeling, Hermione? Should we wait another day?" said Bingley.

"No, Professor, I'm getting stronger by the hour. Ron will help me." She smiled at Ron. "I don't want to delay everyone else."

"Very well, let's get started!" said Bingley, and they all headed for the doorway into the maze with a mixture of eagerness, anticipation, apprehension, and in the case of one person, dread. The latter stepped to one side and quietly performed some very unusual magic. It was something else that followed the others through the doorway; something that was not human.





Chapter 26: Party Girl
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The drab maze hallways were ever more unsettling as the group progressed. After passing through many grim corridors it was becoming clear that they were all identical except for their turnings. Ginny, who had volunteered to note down the differences in each passage soon found that she could just about stride across one square stone block and there were always four of them across the width. The ceiling matched the floor and every wall was also four blocks high so all four surfaces, being identical, often tricked the eye uncomfortably. After standing up suddenly or leaning over, one blinked as to which was down and which was sideways. Pacing the length of each corridor Ginny always count sixteen blocks so eventually all that was worth her noting down were their own marks and markers that they left.

"Harry, give me a nudge if I doze off standing up," said Ginny, rolling her eyes with boredom. Harry grinned and scorched an extra "Haha!" on the wall.

The only other native variations she found in the hallways were their intersections with other hallways. These were never more than four and they only occurred on the long side of any corner. The young girl soon found her rough sketches were like the horizontal bars of square letters 'H', 'h', 'T', "C, 'L', squared 'Z' so that is how she defined them, rotated to show their orientation to each other. She numbered each corridor itself using the flagrate spell while Harry scorched out the same with his wand. Her numbered letter lists complemented Rolf's sketch maps and gave them more confidence should anyone make a mistake.

But because the corridors were otherwise changeless, the maze greatly hindered interest and focus while encouraging mind-wandering and boredom. On journeys, the mind naturally expects new views and interesting diversions but here there was no relief from one passage to the next. Within the first hour of setting out, the group were mentally weary and struggling to stay alert.

Occasionally they found an item taken from Rolf's other bag indicating that Draco had passed that way but these were so few it seemed he was rushing and might only be dropping them at special branches.

Each tried to be adventurous and individual when they placed a light or a marker but apart from raising a light thread or scorching a high stone block instead of a low, there was precious little they could do to relieve the visual monotony. In consequence, conversations fell from levity to monsyllables and finally to silence. Rolf in particular noticed that Luna had not spoken since they had left the banquet hall. They were trailing last behind the others. She was absorbed in her own left-right list and making other notes and waved Rolf away whenever he tried to strike up a discussion. He was reluctant to distract her. He knew how vital it was that none of them made a mistake, he with his maps, Hermione with her page blocks, Ginny with her descriptions, and those who were listing lefts and rights. But there came a time when he had become so concerned that he trotted forward to speak to Professor Bingley who was leading.

"I'm worried about Luna," he said quietly. "She's not been herself at all since the death of Miss Vablatsky and the thestral... that cruelty upset her badly."

"I noticed myself," said Bingley. "Listen, I want to do ninety minute stints. When we take our first break in about thirty minutes I'll speak to her."

But Professor Bingley never had that opportunity. Luna was falling further behind. She was mostly in the same corridor as the others but as the gap widened there came a point when several seconds passed before Rolf, who looked back for her at every intersection, saw her turning the preceding corner. He called gently to her to keep up and resolved to ask Bingley to slow down but he was distracted by his own mapping. Without his magical compass he was continuously having to invoke the Four-Point Spell. Then he had to add the current passage to his map, check direction with dead reckoning, check to where they had back-tracked, triple check himself faultlessly, and all within the half minute or so it took them to pass through one corridor.

So Rolf panicked when Luna had still not turned the previous corner before the one he was at - while ahead he could see the tail end of the group turning the next. He yelled out to them to stop. He dare not run back too soon for then they would not see him when they came back and there were two other possible routes from his corridor. He knew the importance of staying in touch. But the group were quickly back into his corridor and Harry, who was responsible for keeping notes of back-tracking, let Bingley look into the scare while he concentrated on noting their current position.

"What is it, Rolf?" asked Bingley. She could see him at the far end of the corridor, stood with his back in a corner looking down the corridor before that. At first his body language was one of alarm and attentiveness. Then Bingley was relieved to see his shoulders relax as if he was about to speak to someone. But instead he sagged back recoiling against the corner behind him with a look of shock upon his face.

There was a commotion as everyone was shouting at once and charging down to see what was the matter but Rolf was already struggling to upright himself and walking away past the corner and out of their sight, oblivious of them. "She's gone..." was all they heard.

"Everyone stop here!" Bingley said loudly and firmly. "Harry! Mark this corridor! Neville - Stop him! But no further than two turns then come back!"

Bingley held the corner and watched Neville struggling with Rolf at the next. He seemed confused but with Neville's urging he came to his senses. He looked back with fear in his eyes. "She's gone. Luna's gone!"

"What, she's lagged behind or took a wrong turn?" asked Bingley.

"No... She's gone. She just... faded away." Rolf came slowly back with Neville to the others, struggling inwardly to understand what he had seen. He was examining a bag in his hand.

"Taken?" cried Ginny. "Can't we..."

"It wasn't her," said Rolf, almost talking to himself. "It was never her. I knew there was something wrong."

The others waited. Rolf looked up from his reverie. "I don't think it was Luna. I felt something terrible, alien... It wasn't her. I know it wasn't. Or... she wasn't herself...

"She's dropped her bag - but it's empty. No wait - there's a note." Rolf unfolded a small piece of parchment.

"It just says 'Sorry.' Why would she... What's going on?" Rolf held up the note and showed them a green bag with purple dots and a big silver L on the side.

"She did it herself," said Hermione suddenly and everyone turned their attention to her.

"Something she was talking to me about earlier - before breakfast. We were just talking about the Death Eaters, nothing special, just spells and things like that," said Hermione searching her memory. "I can't remember exactly - we talked about... I think she asked something about the Geminio spell being used in a duel, you know, all those phantom Death Eaters in the woods fighting Harry. We were wondering how it was done. One of us said in theory it might be Geminio but normally it's not to be used with people as it's risky except for very powerful wizards like Voldemort."

"Why didn't you say something, Hermione!" stormed Rolf.

"It was... it was nothing special in the context we were talking about," said Hermione. "She... we were laughing about tripping a Death Eater... while he was attacking the false image. I don't remember exactly..."

"Laughing! Luna hasn't even smiled since Miss Vablatsky died!" cried Rolf.

"Well, perhaps it was just me laughing," said Hermione weakly.

"Steady, Rolf," said Ron. "Hermione's had a rough time too."

"We all have," said Bingley. "Everybody slow down a little here. Hermione, did Luna say or do anything else?"

"No, well... she... Well it was me really..." said Hermione.

"What?"

"I showed her the Gemino spell on my... on my bag. I made her that bag from mine. She transfigured it so - No, wait, she made her own bag as well - this bag here might be the one I made. It might be either." She examined the empty bag and turned it inside out.

"Rolf, tell us precisely what you saw, please," said Bingley.

"Luna was coming along slowly, her head was down looking at her notes. I told you she's not been talking. She's not been herself. She's been getting further and further behind. Then she just faded away. She didn't disapparate or portkey or... she just faded to a ghost then... nothing."

"Twinned copy - no more than a phantom," said Bingley. "If she used Geminio then the effect would not last. She made another of herself but it would have only rudimentary intelligence. It would never fool anyone for long. It's one thing to distract an enemy for a few seconds in a battle but I'm surprised she made one this good and it lasted this long and we never noticed."

"My fault," moaned Rolf. He looked rather guiltily at Hermione. "I knew something was wrong. I should have said earlier but I thought she was just upset because of the things that had happened - and I was absorbed myself in making a map."

"But what's happened to her?" asked Ginny. "Where's Luna herself? Our Luna? Why would she do this?"

"Well it's obvious isn't it?" said Bingley. "She wanted to stay behind but Rolf said no. This way, she knew it would be too late to go back for her."

"Well I am going back," said Rolf, quietly but firmly.

"Rolf, Rolf, she might not be... There might not be anything there anymore," said Professor Bingley as gently as she could.

Rolf stood staring at the floor, then around at everyone else. "I'm not leaving without her." He turned to his house-elf who was stood dutifully by, not saying anything as was expected of a house-elf, yet ready to help if asked.

"Feya, You must take me back to the banquet hall." Rolf said, reaching out his hand.

"Master has forbidden Feya..." said Feya.

"I UNforbid you!" snapped Rolf, making Feya jump.

"Rolf, please!" said Bingley. "You should not risk Feya's life this way."

Rolf stomped up and down for a while then he looked at the maps and notes in his hand. "I'm walking back then. Feya, you will accompany me!"

Rolf used his wand to make a copy of his maps and passed them to Bingley. "Go ahead without me." He turned and walked back the way they had come with Feya trotting along behind him.

"Rolf! We'll wait here. We will wait... Four hours! Four hours, Rolf. Then we proceed."

But as Rolf turned the first corner, Bingley called after him, "No wait, Rolf - I'm coming with you!"

Bingley turned to the others. Once again her face showed the burden of responsibility. "I won't return to Hogwarts without any of you if I can help it. Harry - you take charge. Wait for us no more than four hours. Four hours, Harry - promise me!"

Harry hesitated but yielded to the pleading look in the teacher's eyes. "We'll wait four hours. Then we continue without you." He looked at the others and they could see their own doubts showing on his face too.

Bingley turned and swept off after Rolf and Feya. The rest of them threw blankets down to sit on or camp chairs from Hermione's bag. Hermione instinctively checked the area with her wand but it was less than a minute after Bingley's departure that she shouted after the teacher, "No, wait, Professor..."

"She's gone, Hermione. What's up?" said Ron.

"When did Professor Bingley last do a check for... any magical effects?" asked Hermione. "Only..."

"She's been checking every ten or fifteen minutes or so." said Harry.

"Yes, but... Don't you think it's odd we're all getting rather irritable?"

"With good reason, Hermione!" cried Harry. "Luna's lost, she may be... And this bloody maze is driving us all nutty!"

"Only... I'm not so good at this as Professor Bingley but I can detect something," said Hermione, "but it's very faint."

"What is it?" said Neville.

"I don't know. Slight confusion I think."

"Not irritability then? Not annoyance? Not anger?" said Harry sharply.

"No, I'm afraid you have no excuse, Harry," laughed Hermione weakly.

Harry stopped. He shook his head first then he nodded. "OK, mine is just normal irritability then. It's these walls..."

"Well confusion, even a slight confusion spell, doesn't help," said Hermione kindly. "Anyway, we can counter it now we know."

She went among them chanting and waving her wand. "We'll need to keep rechecking though. I think this has increased so subtly we haven't noticed so likely we'll need more counter-curses as we go along and shields too. Be extra careful then, everyone. Confusion can be deadly."

~~~~~~~~~~~~


Rolf was concerned that one of the markers did not agree with his map. Bingley was checking her left-right list and scratching her head. But eventually they resolved the discrepancy and they made much better progress returning than when they first made the journey.

Following the light threads was easy. These had been pulled out of false trails leading to dead ends and replaced by single red light spheres. They seemed to have made a mistake with one light thread but all of Hermione's page blocks were intact and made sense except a couple that they thought had probably been kicked to one side as the last few of them had passed.

But their positive outlook took a blow as they turned the last corner. Ahead of them was the steel door. It was closed. Rolf ran at it and tried to open it. He did not need to say anything to Professor Bingley for her to see that it was locked. Rolf banged on the door as hard as he could and shouted but there was no answer. The door was so thick and immoveable it was unlikely that any sound would pass through especially with the curse that bound it.

Bingley looked at her watch. It had taken them less than thirty minutes to make the return journey.

Rolf and Bingley stared at each other. Then Rolf looked at his watch too. Finally he looked at Bingley and said very firmly, "I will not leave her here. I will not go back without Luna. If there is even a slight chance that she is still in there then I would prefer to remain with her for a few days..."

He took Feya's hand.

"Master Rolf," said the elf sadly but with a very determined attitude. "Feya is begging Master Rolf. Feya has a duty. Feya must continue with the others - even if Miss Luna..."

Rolf stiffened, wide-eyed, then slumped a little, staring at Feya. He knew that look in her eyes.

"Feya... Have you two masters now?" asked Rolf quietly.

Feya stared. Then she swiftly lowered her head which was both a nod and an attitude of respectful submission.

"Feya, is your other master... Is he for good or evil?" said Rolf. "Does he control you?"

Feya looked up and stared even harder. "For good, Master. Only for good. Feya would never obey for evil."

"I think I know... that is, I suspect..." began Bingley.

"Oh good! Everyone knows but me. I think Luna knows. You know. Feya knows," said Rolf loudly. "What's going on?"

"Rolf. If it is what I suspect then a confidence is involved that cannot be broken," said Bingley.

Rolf said nothing but lapsed into a sulky silence and stared hard at the impassable barrier of the door.

"Wait," said Bingley. "I think I can tell if she... If Luna is... alright so you can apparate through safely."

"How Anthea?" said Rolf, somewhat mollified.

"You'll have to give me a few minutes, Rolf," said Bingley.

Bingley moved away down the corridor and sat down with her back to a wall and closed her eyes. She had never entered the mind realm on her own before but she hoped that just a few minutes should be safe - and that's all it would take to perceive any mental entity.

Rolf flung his hands up in despair and looked at Feya. "More secrets!" but he said it very quietly with a furtive look at Bingley.

When Professor Bingley opened her eyes again, Rolf and Feya were stood looking at her, waiting anxiously but hopefully.

"She's alive at least!" smiled Bingley. It was a grim smile but it was her first smile in a while. "We'll all go. But brace yourselves. I only know she's alive. I don't know what state she will be in nor the state of the hall."

They held hands with the little elf and disapparated.

~~~~~~~~~~~~


The banquet hall had reshaped itself since last they were there. It was now very small. Pale blue curtains framed little windows looking out onto sunny meadows. The walls were bright creams and yellows, reds and greens with paintings of magical wildlife and country scenes of rustic pleasantness. There was only one bedroom door. The table in the middle of the room was small and square but still heaped with different foods aplenty. The fireplace area was much smaller and very cosy. Sitting before the fire in a comfortable-looking pink velvet-covered chair was Luna. She had a tray on her lap and was tucking into the remains of a hearty meal of roast turkey, potatoes, brussels sprouts, peas, carrots, and a large amount of stuffing. In front of her chair was an open book on a reading stand. She had her bare feet up on a squashy foot stool.

"Rolf! Feya! Professor Bingley! This is a pleasant surprise. You found your own way back! You're just in time for elevenses!" cried Luna. "Where is everyone else?"

"If that's elevenses then I can't wait to see what's for dinner!" said Rolf. He gave Luna a kiss on the forehead. "How are you? Are you alright?"

"Why, I'm fine," said Luna, "Why shouldn't I be? You've only been gone a couple of hours."

"You are a scoundrel, Luna, We've been worried to death about you," said Rolf, "What is all this? What's going on?"

"Oh, sorry. I thought I might as well enjoy myself while I'm waiting," said Luna. "Do you like my new room? It's very pleasant but I expect it will reshape itself soon now that you are here. Pity. I quite like it like this. The food is very tasty and the wine is delicious."

"Luna, have you been drinking?" asked Professor Bingley with mild severity. She was so relieved to find her student safe and well she could not be too harsh.

"Just a little. Only for research you understand. Here, try some." She grabbed a bottle from the side of her chair and sloshed it rather clumsily into an empty glass which she then held out to the teacher who declined it.

"Luna, what have you been waiting for?" asked Bingley.

"In case you need my patronus to lead you back here of course," said Luna. "I've been trying to keep myself cheerful ready for it." Seeing the glass of wine in her hand she began to drink it.

"So we see," said Rolf with mock sternness. He appeared to Bingley to have had a great weight of worry lifted from his shoulders. As they looked around at the room it was already reforming. The table yawned and stretched itself to four places. The walls lengthened and re-coloured themselves and three more bedroom doors sprung out with a popping sound.

Luna continued, "...and this book is fun - it's about muggle phrases and saying. They are quite silly some of them."

"Luna, we cannot leave without you," said Bingley. "We just can't."

Luna sighed. "The jig's up then. I'm caught red-handed with jam on my face and my hand in the cookie jar. I am, in short, undone."

"Luna, will you please be serious. We have..." Bingley consulted her watch, "about two hours to get back to the others."

Luna looked wistfully at her turkey dinner then placed the tray to one side where Feya eyed it, wondering whether to clear it away or not. "Is there then no possibility I can persuade you that there is no realistic way through the maze and you might at some time wish you could be back here? There is still the possibility of returning through the void and awaiting the Aurors. There is at least a slim chance they might catch Miss Lestraithe and cross the fire grid with the inferius again."

Rolf tried to speak but Luna cut him off and continued. "At the very least, is it not better to spend one's last days here than in those cold corridors?"

"No, Luna," said Bingley. "It is better to die trying without hope than to give up."

Luna's face was very serious now as she resigned herself to the inevitable. "Very well. But I would very much like for Miss Vablatsky to be brought in here. I am hopeful that the room will accomodate her."

"Yes, of course," said Rolf. "It might be more appropriate." He exchanged glances with Professor Bingley.

"There is another reason. I think there is a possibility her presence might keep this room formed," said Luna.

"Luna, we'll not be coming back here," said Bingley softly.

"Never burn your britches behind you," said Luna in a slightly slurred voice.

As they crossed the room, Rolf looked through one of the homely windows. He saw tall grasses splashed with meadow flowers flowing up and down gentle slopes as far as the eye could see. Here and there was a broad leafy tree and sometimes two or three together. The scene reminded him of ocean swells with the masts of great ships reaching up to the sky and rigged with vast green sails - yet all frozen in time except for the breeze rippling through the grass and the leaves.

"It's not real," said Luna. "None of it's real."

Rolf looked up at the ceiling. The shaft that dominated the medieval banquet hall was not present.

"How deep are we I wonder?" Luna mused aloud.

"Not so deep I don't think," said Rolf. " Those black corridors were not steep. I kept track as we came down. I think that shaft we saw in the ceiling was realistic and showed us where the sky would have been."

They continued to the doorway that led to the corridor below the altar. As they went through, Luna remained just inside the room, still shakily clutching her glass of wine. Rolf gave her a questioning look.

"I'm afraid that if everyone leaves this room it may all begin again and another thestral will be cursed. It would be simple to use it and save the world but we're between a rock and a hard place; the devil and the deep blue sea." She drained her glass and flung it angrily at a wall where it smashed.

Rolf and Bingley stared in dismay at Luna. Neither of them had ever seen Luna so cross before.

"I'm not certain of course but I don't want to chance it," added Luna, lapsing into a more subdued attitude.

As Rolf Scamander and Anthea Bingley carried in the body of Cassandra Vablatsky the whole room began to take on a slightly different, more restrained look, and another bedroom door popped into view.

"Good," said Luna. "The room doesn't know that's she's passed on, shuffled off a mortal coil, or even kicked a bucket. We can now cat nap, take forty winks or even go up the wooden hill to the Land of Nod."

"Luna?" said Rolf. He wondered if he would ever fully understand this girl - or if he even wanted to.

"We need to have a bite of food and get some sleep."

"What!" said Rolf. "We must get back."

"Just a drop of potion will do for a few minutes sleep is all we need do. That's what Draco did. It's the only way to open the door."

"But Feya can apparate us right through..." said Bingley.

"I'd feel better if the door was opened like it was earlier. We know it worked once. I'm not certain what will be here if we do anything differently. Anyway, I've not had any pudding yet."

~~~~~~~~~~~~


As they walked through the steel door less than thirty minutes later after having slept for only five, Rolf was preparing for Feya to apparate them directly back to the others. But Luna cautioned them.

"Can we be sure they will be in the same place?" she said.

"Yes, Harry definitely will not move them along for another... Just over an hour or so."

"What I should have said is, can we be sure that the place will be in the same place? Someone has gone to a lot of trouble to make a maze that is impossible to cross without a thestral to lead the way. These blocks are all exactly the same shape and size; ideal for sliding around into new positions don't you think?"

Both Rolf and Bingley studied the walls as they realized the implications of a maze that might reshape itself as they went through.

"A changing maze? Luna, what do you expect us to do?" asked Rolf.

"I expect us to die," said Luna sadly. "Please do not tell the others. I only say this to you so bluntly because the door is still open behind us. It is not too late to bring everyone back here. It is unlikely to be possible later. How can I convince you?"

"I do not understand why you are so negative, Luna," said Bingley. "You, who have so many ideas, have such insights..."

"The truth is sometimes brutal, Professor," said Luna sternly. "Instead of trying to solve this maze, think backwards and design a maze instead. We'll begin with a cruel mind who wishes only to test ruthless intelligence and inflict suffering on those who fail the test.

"Imagine you can create any maze you wish using any magic you wish. Further, you have one of the most powerful wizards of the century to perform this magic. In addition, you do not have a few hours but many years to refine and improve your tortuous puzzle. Would you not then think of every possible way to prevent the traveller from progressing except the way you wish - that is, to whip a helpless creature to suffer agonies to lead him through?

"Would you not then let the maze reshape itself, move all markers subtly within it, influence the traveller, ensnare his mind, change his notes, his maps, his lists, change paths, add unbreakable curses to trick, deceive, confuse, frighten, and inflict despair? We could produce a maze that would make the gods weep, impossible except for the one vile way that we prescribe."

Rolf and Bingley stared in horror at Luna's incisive dissection of the problem.

"Miss Luna?" said the little elf. "Feya has to go forward no matter what. Miss Luna promised to protect little Feya."

For the first time, Luna looked astonished. The entire structure of her reasoning was undermined by the elf's two simple statements. Her eyes widened and she looked closely at the elf. She put her head on one side to think.

"Then you must be my hope, Feya, for I have none," said Luna.

~~~~~~~~~~~~


As they tried to make their way back to the others on foot, Luna's lack of hope seemed justified for they found other discrepancies in their lists, markers, and Rolf's map. These did not seem too serious because they caused them to make only a single wrong turn but soon none of the corners matched Rolf's map. As he worriedly consulted his watch, he had to concede they were slightly lost.

At this stage he was not too concerned. They had several backup checks they could perform or they could simply make their way the same as the first time. However, because they only had twenty minutes left before Harry's group planned to move on, Rolf thought it wise to cast his patronus to lead them back to where the others were. It could find them even if it could not find its way through the entire maze that was unknown to them.

"I see yours is a bird too," said Bingley.

"Sparrowhawk, same as all Scamanders far back as we know," said Rolf. "My grandfather and I were both very close. In a way, I was closer to my grandfather than my father. He spent a lot of time with me after my father died."

"It's beautiful," said Luna.

The silvery blue bird fluttered ghostlike ahead of them. They followed swiftly and were soon hearing the calls of the main group who were beginning to worry and were hoping to guide them back to the sound.

~~~~~~~~~~~~


"Listen everyone, despite all our precautions, we've been nowhere near careful enough," said Professor Bingley.

There were protests from many. Harry said, "But we're doing alright. We've made progress. Now we must push on."

"No, it's quite clear now that this maze is likely to be much more dangerous than we thought so extra care is needed if we are to survive. We need new thinking on this so..." Bingley paused. "I am putting Luna in charge to get us through this maze."

There was shocked silence from everyone including Luna.

"But Professor," began Luna, "I'm the worst person for this."

"No, you're the best. Listen everyone. I bear the final responsibility but for now you will all take orders from Luna until we get out of this maze. You will do whatever she says without question. Is that understood?"

Nobody spoke for a few seconds then Feya raised her hand and said, "Feya understands. Feya will obey Luna if Master Rolf agrees."

Rolf grinned and raised his hand too. "Yes me too. Feya you will accept all orders from Luna as if they were from me. Understood?"

"Yes Master Rolf," smiled the little elf.

"No problem here," said Harry. "It's a great idea."

After their initial shock everyone joined in more enthusiastically. Luna rose hesitantly to her feet and thought carefully for nearly half a minute while everyone waited.

"I've never been in charge of anything before so it might take me a while to get used to it I think. I do have some ideas though but you might think they're a little dotty. Will everyone really do what I say even if they don't understand why?"

"Yes - they must!" said Bingley. "Surprise us, Luna."

"Well... alright. I'd like to celebrate my appointment by making Ginny my party organizer, barmaid, and hat maker. Oh yes and maracas - make lots of maracas. They're jolly good fun."

Everyone laughed but Hermione saw that Luna was serious. "Luna, time might be critical..."

"Good point, Hermione! I shall make you official time-keeper and my second-in-command. I need to discuss tactics with you soon so can you prepare to talk to me about every idea you've been worrying about since we came in here please?"

Hermione was too astonished to respond quickly but Luna had already moved back to Ginny. She handed Ginny her bag.

"Ginny, there's lots of party stuff in here. I needed cheering up in the banquet hall and it made this lot. There's also oodles of party food and plenty of bottles of Merrygrimp's magical wine. Wipe out worry with one wet whistle. And look, tilt the bottle and see Mr. Merrygrimp smile. It's good for four hours a shot. You are responsible for making sure everyone has one tot every four hours but only give Feya a half thimbleful. It's not alcoholic and does not make your senses whizzy. It just lifts your spirit and helps to make you feel good. There are also some one-a-minute joke books."

Ginny squealed with delight and started to delve into the bag.

"Ron, you must know lots of Quidditch songs?" said Luna.

"Songs? Well yeah, but," Ron said.

"Oh, I suppose the ones you know are rather puerile and vulgar to give mindless encouragement no matter how useless the team?"

"Erm... yeah, something like that," said Ron ruefully.

"Excellent! You must consult with the party organizer - that's Ginny - and teach everyone to sing those songs," said Luna chirpily.

"Professor Bingley, we all know what a wonderful story-teller you are. Please also consult with Ginny. I want you to prepare your happiest, funniest, warmest, most inspiring stories for everyone to hear. Also pair up with Hermione to test for dark magical effects continously as we travel and no longer than every five minutes when we have stopped." Luna did not wait for a reply.

"Ginny, you must vary the entertainment regularly but keep it coming," Luna turned yet again, this time to Harry.

"Harry, I need to see you privately. Please come and see me when I'm free," again, Luna swept on, not waiting for a reply.

"Feya, tell me about elf songs," said Luna.

Feya blinked. "Elf songs are what elves sing, Miss Luna."

"Feya, your voice is very musical and beautiful even when you speak. I'm sure it must be wonderful when you sing. We'd love to hear it."

"Miss Luna wishes Feya to sing... to wizards?"

"Is this allowed?" said Luna. "Would the house-elves mind if you did?"

"Mind, Miss Luna? Oh, Miss Luna is too gracious. This is a great honour for little Feya to sing before wizards. Feya is happy to sing." She opened her mouth wide and a single note burst forth but Luna put up a hand to stop her. Everyone else had stopped too. The note was so pure, so sweet, it mesmerised them all and seemed to hang in the air long after it had faded down the corridors.

"Not now, Feya. Consult with Ginny. Also would you please help anyone who needs help where you can. I know you do that anyway. Thanks."

"Rolf, you will plan and lead the expedition's route. We travel for no longer than fifteen minutes then we stop..."

"Fifteen minutes!" cried Rolf.

Luna hesitated. "Mmm... you're right. Make it every ten minutes."

"Then what?"

"Then we test."

"Test what?"

"I don't know yet. I'll get back to you," said Luna. "Neville, I want you to work with Rolf and make your own independent maps. Rolf will show you how."

Luna went to the next turning off the corridor and called back, "I'll be in my office if anyone needs me."

"Where's that?" asked Bingley.

"Right here," smiled Luna serenely, pointing round the corner. "Harry! I'm free now. Can I have a word with you in private, please."

Harry went running after Luna.

"Luna, you sure you know what you're doing?" said Harry, once he was round the corner with Luna.

"Harry, I am very sorry. I hope you forgive me," said Luna.

"Forgive you?" said Harry. He was puzzled but he knew that was normal with Luna.

"I stole something from you earlier. Well, borrowed without your permission."

Harry stared as Luna took out the elder wand and handed it to Harry.

"You? It was you that took it?" said Harry. The disbelief was evident in his tone as he examined the wand.

"I saw Draco only sipped a little sleep potion. Nearly everyone else was toasting me. I thought everyone but myself would be asleep soon after that so it was up to me. I thought he was going to steal a wand. I felt sure that's what he would do. I was wrong. I could scarcely go round and steal everyone's wand. My biggest worry was that he might take... this wand... and it fall into the hands of the Death Eaters."

Harry thought about this for a while and nodded.

"Also... I must admit, I wanted to use it myself. I knew I could not produce a phantom copy of myself with my own wand... It's a terrible thing I know... to take someone's wand..."

Harry grinned. "You are without doubt the dottiest, craziest, loonyest person I ever met. I forgive you but I doubt I need to. You probably did the right thing anyway."

"Listen, there's something else." Luna paused. Harry waited.

Luna sighed. "Despite the party preparations it's going to get nasty, really nasty, very soon. I need you to try to support everyone and... drive them hard if you have to. Can you do that?"

"Why'd you think that?" said Harry. "I thought..."

"Can you do it?"

Harry looked crushed. His spirits had been raised in the last few minutes like everyone else's. He had felt encouraged that despite the madness, Luna had some great new ideas. Now reality sank in. He nodded.

"I'll do everything I can," said Harry.

"It's worse than that," said Luna.

"What do you mean?"

"No matter what happens to us all... Someone must get through and... take Feya."

"Feya? Why Feya?"

"I don't know. Trust me in this."

Harry stared yet again, then nodded. "I'll see to it."

"One more thing, more important than anything," said Luna.

"What?"

"Cheer up. Be positive. That will become important. You must set an example to the others. They'll look to you for leadership more than to me," said Luna. "Professor Bingley only put me in charge to stop me being a nuisance I think."

Harry looked grim. "Well, then I... shall... have to do it." He pulled a big wide mock grin.

"Can you ask Hermione to come and see me now, please?" smiled Luna.

"Hermione?" said Harry. "Sure." Once he'd gone, Luna took out her notebook and her Quibbler reporter's go-anywhere quill.

Hermione came around the corner with a couple of canvas camp chairs.

"Good thinking," said Luna. "And that's why you're here and why you're second in command. There's a muggle saying, 'Two heads are better than one' - unless you're a cook that is. I wish you were in charge actually; you're more sensible than I am. Anyway, you must have had lots of ideas since we knew we had a maze to get through. I need your advice. Anything that you think might help. Even things you've dismissed as unlikely."

"I need time..."

"We don't have any. What ideas have you got now?"

"Well, I like your idea of trying to raise everyone's spirits. That will help overcome any dark curses like melancholy and such-like."

"Not really. Those are just so everyone dies happy when we fail."

Hermione was extremely shocked. "Luna! You don't really think..."

"You saw the thestral, Hermione. You're not stupid. You know Voldemort would have made this maze foolproof. There is no realistic way through this maze."

"Then why are we plotting and planning?" said Hermione hotly.

"To survive as long as possible in the hope that something unrealistic will turn up."

Hermione stared and fell silent. "Is that what you really think?"

Luna nodded.

"You think we have no hope at all except by some freak accident?"

"That's right," said Luna. She waited. She knew there had been no easy way to tell Hermione - or rather, make her realize what she hoped would be self-evident to her with a little prodding.

They could hear shrieks of laughter coming from around the corner and then Ron and Harry started singing rather badly and there was more laughter.

"There is one dreadful idea I had..."

"Dreadful? That's usually good when it comes from Hermione Granger," smiled Luna.

"I had this vision of everyone going crazy and just running in all directions. Someone might get through by chance then help the others?"

"Oh. Is that it?"

"Erm well no, I meant when we get through further and think we might be nearer the end of course. Imagine if were only three turnings from the exit and never realized..."

"Good point. You're right. Write that down," seeing Hermione's look, Luna added, "I'm serious, write it down. We might be in no state to think of it later."

Luna waited while Hermione made notes then continued, "The main problem with it is knowing if we might be near the exit. The end might be round this next corner for all we know. Do have any Liquid Luck in your bag?"

Hermione smiled in resignation and shook her head. "It's extremely difficult to make and dangerous if you use it too often so there's precious little of it about."

They both thought for a while.

"Test the air! A slight breeze might mean something," said Hermione.

"Oh yes, and listen for sounds," said Luna, picking up on Hermione's idea, "sniff for smells, look for odd lights! Yes, we must do that at every new corner we do not yet go down."

"Extendable Ears!" said Hermione. "We might have a use for those."Oh, and Harry's Sneakoscope."

They were both silent for a time.

"Any other ideas?" prompted Luna, hoping to redirect Hermione's thinking.

"You already know there will be curses." said Hermione. "Listen, I've not had a chance to discuss this with Professor Bingley yet. I detected a very faint curse - probably confusion or similar. But why not something stronger? And why is it not right at the start - all the way through?"

Luna thought about this for a while then seeing the look on Hermione's face she said, "What do you think?"

Hermione resumed. "I think it's to lull people into a false sense of security and gradually influence them rather than one big obvious curse right at the start that anyone would detect before they even entered. Also, remember what you said, it is intended that the right person gets through with the thestral so the curses cannot be too severe. I think they are probably worse towards the centre. I feel sure these curses would not be so severe as to stop someone clinging onto or following a thestral at least. I mean, they can't be unconscious or so terrified they'd run away, right?"

"So that's encouraging but severe confusion can be totally disabling. I think you've probably not experienced it that bad have you, Hermione?"

"Well, no, not to that extent..."

"I have. I was useless... terrified... helpless."

"So how did you...?" said Hermione.

"I saw something. I had just enough wit to try to get to it."

"That's it you see! You could have followed a thestral right?"

"Yes but Hermione, we won't have anything to follow."

"We have each other! So long as one of us can keep going there is hope!" said Hermione.

"Good point. Write it down," said Luna. "If we always keep moving then we might stumble out perhaps. Unless there is..."

"Melancholy as well," said Hermione, somewhat subdued. "Oh Luna, what do we do?"

"I don't know, Hermione. I don't know," said Luna quietly.

"You saw all of this didn't you, Luna," said Hermione, "right back when the thestral was suffering I mean - when you broke down. You knew then what a dreadful choice had to be made."

Luna nodded but could not answer. Neither could speak for a while.

"No wait!" said Hermione suddenly, "That's it! We're forgetting the thestral itself. It is intended that the worthy ones get through following a thestral so they couldn't be so despondent that they wouldn't bother could they?"

"Excellent! Write it down, Hermione. That will give us hope. We can never be so low that we cannot try. Unless..."

"Oh no!" wailed Hermione, "what now?"

"If there are melancholy curses set up away from the main route - I mean away from the route that the thestral would take," said Luna softly.

Again Hermione lapsed into silence for a while then her eyes lightened a little, "But that gives us an indication where the main route is does it not? The more melancholy - the more we are off the main route!"

"Excellent! Hoorah for Melancholy! Write it down," said Luna, "High Five!"

"Where'd you learn that, Luna?" said Hermione excitedly, and smiling for the first time as she scribbled the addition to her notes.

"Oh, I've got a book of muggle sayings," said Luna, "Hermione, why do muggles burn their britches? That's the only one I couldn't understand."

Hermione burst out laughing and the singing around the corner raised a notch in volume as if encouraged by the laughter. Luna winked. "That Merrygrimp's wine is really effective but you do have to help it along."

"Oh - I have another idea... Oh but it's really crazy. It's barbaric actually," said Hermione.

"What?"

"Canaries," said Hermione.

"Is this to do with the bread crumbs?" said Luna.

"No. Long ago, miners took canaries down into coal mines to test for poisonous gas..." Hermione hesitated. "I was thinking if someone went ahead - just one corridor ahead I mean..."

"What happened to the canaries?" asked Luna, very softly.

"Well, they... they died... Unless, I think if the miners got them away quickly enough," said Hermione. "If only we'd brought ropes we could pull them back - whoever goes ahead I mean."

"But there are ropes for the tent?" said Luna.

"Well, yes, but they are only short guy-ropes." said Hermione. "Perhaps there are enough... If we tie them together and... rip up sheets... it might be long enough to go say, one or two corridors ahead."

"Oh, ask Rolf as well," said Luna. "He had tent ropes but I don't know if they're in the bag that Draco took."

Hermione flushed a little and looked down.

"Oh, Hermione?" said Luna. "He won't mind..."

"I think... He was angry at me because I didn't tell them you asked about Geminio - I just didn't think of it."

Luna stood up and Hermione rose with her. Luna embraced Hermione. "Don't be uncomfortable with Rolf. He has been the head of a great ancestral home since he was a child. He seems like a big bear sometimes: fierce and fiery about things that are important to him but he's a gentle, lovely man and quick to forget about things like that - and I'm back now anyway. You see, before he was probably worried about me. Face him, ask him - I promise he won't be grumpy or grouchy or - as the muggles say - like a bear with a sore head."

They put their notebooks and the chairs away in Hermione's bag as if there was an unspoken understanding that the meeting was over.

"You love each other don't you?" said Hermione with a smile. "I'm so happy for you, Luna."

"We've only known each other a few weeks. It seems ages ago in a way," Luna smiled back.

"I loved Rolf at our first meeting. I'm not sure I thought of it that way though. I just knew I wanted to be with him... all the time. And he liked me straight away too - I could tell, honestly!" Luna's eyes grew wide as if she expected that to astonish Hermione.

Another loud burst of laughter from around the corner reminded them of where they were and Luna and Hermione grinned at one another.

"I think that's enough for now. We need to get moving as soon as we can." Luna looked around briefly to make sure they'd not left anything lying around then they headed back to the others. "Listen, we have to get everyone to rehearse what we do in every situation. So they do it automatically no matter how badly they feel. We need to discuss this with everyone so everyone knows what we're up against and is ready to respond. Maybe we can think up more ideas later."

As the came round the corner Ginny looked up and came over as if she had been waiting to ask Luna something privately. She went round the same corner tugging Luna back with her. She looked rather embarrassed.

"Luna," whispered Ginny furtively, glancing back at the corner as if she were afraid someone might overhear. "We were talking. Ron and me... that hankie you gave me..."

"Miss Vablatsky gave it me - back in the forest when we first met." said Luna. "She told me to give it to you at a suitable moment - for you to hold. I didn't understand why at the time so I didn't give it you. Not until we were down in the corridor knitting the nothingness thread when she reminded me to give it to you."

"She knew from the start? She knew she was to die?" said Ginny guiltily.

"I had already seen the blood. That's why I tied the ribbon round it to hide it. There was something... about how Miss Vablatsky spoke. I knew it was bad though I still didn't understand. She knew you would be one of the seven in the ritual, I'm sure. It couldn't be me; I had to cast the drops of unicorn blood. And you..."

"I wouldn't have kept it," said Ginny, sorrowfully, "not if I'd got it from her..."

Luna waited.

"None of us were friendly towards her," continued Ginny as if she were confessing out her shame. "She died for us - for the world - but none of us made friends... except you, I'm glad she had one friend at the end."

For once, Luna did not know what to say. "Don't worry about it, Ginny. Sometimes we don't understand people if they are... different."

"Bit like you, Loony," said Ginny tearfully.

"It's best not to let anyone else see a sad face, don't you think?"

"Okay." Ginny stiffened her shoulders up straight, rubbed her eyes with the back of her fist, and forced a smile.

"Come on, we need to start moving soon," said Luna.

"Oh, Ron wanted a word in private too," said Ginny. "I'll send him round shall I?"

Luna made a huge effort to stifle a sigh then said as brightly as she could, "Yes, of course."

"Well, that is, he didn't... He wasn't sure whether to or not..." faltered Ginny. "I'll make him come."

She went off and Luna stood waiting patiently but puzzled. Half a minute later, Ron came around the corner.

"Oh, erm... Luna..." he said gruffly. "Could I have a word?"

"Yes, of course, Ron."

"Erm... Only it's this," he pulled a card out of his pocket. "Got it with one of the chocolate frogs. Only... they're quite rare. I just wondered if you'd like it."

He hesitated then handed her the card. "Bit silly I suppose but..."

Luna looked at the card.

"and the date's wrong of course..." mumbled Ron. He went back round the corner.

The card depicted Cassandra Vablatsky. In the image she was very young and quite beautiful. She was sitting by the side of a crystal ball - posing and trying to look mysterious. In front her was a low table. Miss Vablatsky looked straight into Luna's eyes without looking down at the three tarot cards she was slowly dealing: The high priestess, the world, and the sacrifice of the hanged man.




Chapter 27: Hallways of Drear
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The maze continued to be as bland and unhelpful as ever to the travellers but although the many hours that followed were hard, tedious work, they did seem fruitful. Rolf's and Neville's maps developed into sizeable atlases of eight or ten pages each and there were only two discrepancies between them which they could explain. Likewise, all the listing and marking seemed to have become proficient and reliable, again with only minimal inconsistencies.

"We're Mazers, through and through!" was a common emphatic chorus in their rousing songs which they had modified from Ron's near-inexhaustible supply - though Professor Bingley had to censor the most bawdy. Ginny interspersed these with Bingley's storytelling which both fascinated and raised the morale of all. But it was Feya's singing that had the greatest impact. The teacher explained it best, drawing on her wide general magical knowledge.

"Feya is no ordinary house-elf," she explained during a short break and while the elf's magical tones, though just ended and the elf now asleep, still enthralled them inwardly.

"The community of house-elves differ greatly from that of wizards and muggles," Bingley continued. "A great elf singer is not particularly lauded but taken as a given talent to be shared by all of elfkind as circumstances arise. No house-elf would complain if they did not get to hear her and if any did, and felt even slightly wistful afterwards, they would not complain nor hunger for long. They would buckle down to their work of servitude as elves do. Feya's name will never spread far and wide nor will her singing ever be rewarded in proportion to its quality. If she had been a muggle her name would no doubt have been known in every household and she would have been extremely wealthy. But she is not a muggle. She is a house-elf and has no knowledge of pride in such a gift."

"It's so unfair," said Hermione sadly and no one disagreed.

The notes of Feya's songs were always gentle, slow, and sustained. It was elf-music. Each note held the attention of the hearer, held the heart and soothed the soul. Every note engendered a relaxed focus but each in a different way; each with a different mood. Her voice could have soared the spectrum of delight and joy - or plumb the depths of nostalgia and anguish but here, in this desolate maze, as instructed, she held to profound inspirations, swells of meaningfulness, and the deepest of satisfactions.

If the songs and stories were a feast then the jokes were the salt and pepper which the students were quick to customise:

"If ignorance is bliss, why was Voldemort such a miserable git?" was popular with Ron and he repeated it perhaps rather too much.

"Professor, I was hit in the head by a bludger and now I get horrible spots dancing before my eyes. Have you seen Madame Pomfrey? Not dancing, no. Just the horrible spots," was one of Ginny's favourites and Luna shrieked with laughter when she heard it. She had to take an extra shot of Merrygrimp to calm herself down.

And all through this joking, singing, story-telling, and magical wine, all of them worked, logging, listing, mapping, testing and checking, without the tedium they had heretofore suffered. Every ten minutes or so, Luna would call a halt and work would be checked; they would link together with short ropes and extend themselves quickly back along corridors with little risk of getting separated and check for changes in the maze or forwards to test for curses too severe to handle if all were affected.

Luna tried to make a game of everything. She would sit down, make rowing movements with her hands and cry "Wheee!" as she was skidded backwards on her rope. The most sombre, ungamelike work, fell to Bingley and Hermione who tested their current corridor almost continuously for dark magical effects.

Every hour or so they would take a proper break and sit down for a coffee or tea, perhaps a biscuit - some light refreshment while their legs and arms and eyes rested. It was during one of these respites that Bingley first reported an increase in the intensity of the curses they were encountering. They were still able to combat them but it meant more work, and, of course, a temptation to worry - something they did not want to do.

As time passed and this intensity increased further they could not decide if it meant they were nearing the centre of the maze or if it meant they had wandered completely from the ideal path - that intended for the thestral. But it was on the second day that they had to conclude they had strayed. By this time, the effects of the curses were so savage they were forced to retreat. Neville, who had gone ahead two corridors on their longest rope had to be pulled back in an almost incoherent state and counter-spells applied. They had been almost continuously casting protections and could do no more to stay the effects of the dark magic.

The problem was that looking at the maps, they could see no recent alternate route. The last turning they had not explored was several hours back. Nevertheless, they had no choice but to retrace their steps and this revealed a new problem.

"It's an unlucky maze - the maze itself is misdirecting us," Bingley declared somewhat drunkenly. "That is, if you look at our paths on the maps we have never really been lucky--"

"Like bad liquid luck?" said Ron.

"Something like that, perhaps worse. I think we have almost always explored the 'worst ways' first. We have had to eliminate the wrong ways much more than one might expect by chance. I suspect that whatever turning we first choose will tend to be the wrong one no matter what we do so it's slowing us down."

"Then whenever we choose each next turning let's deliberately go a different way," suggested Hermione. "Suppose I choose the way then you override me?"

Bingley smiled. "It won't work. We'd still be choosing the worst way. It's the real choice that matters."

"Then let's spin a Galleon," said Hermione, "heads for turn left and tails for turn right. We'd at least have an equal chance of being right or wrong and that's better than always being wrong,"

"Perhaps," said Bingley thoughtfully, "but if this curse is like Felix's dark sister then I think it will influence the spin of the coin."

"Then let's always turn left then right then left," persisted Hermione. "No curse can change that because it will be an unchangeable fact: fifty-fifty."

"You're right, I think," said Luna, "but might we not get confused which was our last turn? We must each keep another list and at every turn each check with each other."

There were quickly-stifled groans at the thought of more tedious testing.

After many more hours they had managed to retrace their steps to what seemed to be the last unchecked turning and had begun to walk along it. For a time morale was very low because of the large amount of ground and time they had lost. Luna, determined to be positive, insisted they had not wasted time because they had successfully mapped a bad part of the maze which they could now avoid. However, although the curses were lessened in proportion to their retreat, now they were proceeding along this new route, the curses had begun to increase again.

"I don't think they are increasing quite so much," said Bingley. "I take that as a good sign. If this is the optimum path through--"

"What's that?" interrupted Harry. He had been leading and stopped at the next corner. "I think it's your bag, Rolf."

"It's yours alright," said Harry, taking it back to Rolf.

"Doesn't seem to be too much missing," said Rolf as he rummaged through the bag. "Small things - we may have picked up most of them anyway on the way."

"My scalar! And here's my compass!" he exclaimed. "Draco does not seem to have used it at all - it still has my last settings on it. This will make my mapping a little easier."

"So, where's Draco?" asked Ron. He did not hide the trace of hope in his voice. "Fell down a hole?"

"Maybe he's just running and has blundered through?" said Neville.

"I don't think you can get near the exit by luck," said Luna.

"Yeah - good luck is in kind of short supply right now," said Ron.

They made further progress but eventually that shortage of good luck managed to find an unchecked mistake.

It was while Bingley was sleeping. Exhausted by the continous strain and effort, five of them were sleeping with four nearing the end of their watch so they were not as sharp and alert as was desirable. Ron and Luna were generally just keeping lookout and repeatedly getting up and checking all side corridors for changes. They were taking it in turns to sing softly or read out jokes from the book but while these were evoking a few smiles and helping to break the monotony, they failed to cause any substantial laughter.

Hermione was continuously testing for curses and casting protections with Harry backing her up; checking her and covering for a minute or two here and there so she could have a breather. But pushed to the limit, she made one single mistake in a tired chant which gave entry to more confusion and this then snowballed.

They could feel it. They could feel the difference: increasing forgetfulness, more confused thinking. It was only because they were not travelling that it did not immediately endanger them. Although all four of them now worked to add more protections they were only treading water, holding the pressure at bay so it did not get worse. They discussed whether to wake the others, especially Bingley. Luna vetoed this. She felt as long as they could hold their ground they should let Bingley get her full sleep for the twenty or thirty minutes remaining of their watch.

A wave of despair passed over Harry and he stood up and physically shook himself to fight it. He joined in some of the singing with as much verve as he could but it was false, mere repetition, and eventually he sank to his knees. The others quickly gathered round him and used repeated counter-curses and invoked shields but even so, several minutes passed before Harry recovered.

"Sorry, just for a few moments I don't think I was paying attention - my mind wandered," he said.

"That's why we're here mate," said Ron. He turned to them all. "We have to keep watching each other. Keep talking so we can tell who's weakening."

"Harry, I don't think you drank your last dose of wine," said Luna. She poured a big tumbler full and handed it to him.

"Sorry, Luna - I'm not much of a role model." Harry said glumly. He drank the wine quickly and his thoughts turned inward for inspiration. "If only Professor Dumbledore was here. He'd know what to do."

Hermione gave Harry a strange stare then muttered loudly to herself, "Oh no! Oh no!" After hesitating for a while, she open her bag and began fumbling inside.

"Miss Granger, you are in a great deal of trouble," came a familiar voice.

"I'm sorry Professor, I really am," said Hermione very meekly.

Harry gawped in disbelief as Hermione pulled a large portrait out of her bag. For a few seconds Harry could neither speak nor even close his mouth. Some of the others too were slowly awakening - stimulated by the commanding sound of a new, different voice.

"Hermione! You stole the Professor's portrait out of the headmaster's office?" Harry cried, finding his mouth working at last and waking the last of the sleepers.

"Well, I..."

"You surprise me, Harry," smiled Dumbledore's portrait. "that you would think a fellow Gryffindor would stoop so low. No, Miss Granger had my full permission. Indeed, I asked to come along."

"You did?" said Harry, still rather dazed. "But sir, how did you know..."

"Ah! You see, when certain Hogwarts' students are attacked by curious moving curses - within the school's protection I might add - and when a new Hogwarts' teacher asks the headmistress to take those same students on a curious field trip to practice dark defence arts, my suspicions were aroused.

"It was I who suggested to Professor McGonagall that another adult be present and it was I that suggested that Miss Granger be asked if I might come along. It can get stuffy and boring stuck in an office all day, you know - even in such as the Hogwarts' head's office." There was a twinkle in his eyes that caught Ron's attention.

"I'm sorry, Professor," said Hermione, "I couldn't always leave the bag open..."

"It was you I saw in the bag!" exclaimed Ron. "There never was a spider in the bag was there, Hermione? Scared me half to death!"

"But Professor," said Harry, "why is Hermione in trouble?"

"Oh, a mere nothing in comparison to your accusation, Harry. Miss Granger accidentally poked me in the eye when trying to find her alchemy book and although, of course, that couldn't actually harm me, ever since then I have been literally in the dark - apart from glimpses and snatches of conversation which just about kept me in touch," said the portrait of Dumbledore.

"There really wasn't anything to see - just blackness in those corridors," said Hermione. She continued in a tiny voice, "Then I was so frightened by the fire... and the void... then the sacrifice and... I simply forgot to leave the bag open after that. I... I forgot about you, Professor. I'm truly sorry."

"Quite understandable, young lady. I do understand."

"But sir, why the secrecy? Why not--" said Harry.

"Harry, it is not my task to run things anymore. I asked Miss Granger to only reveal my presence to those who ask."

"Sorry, sir. But Professor, I'm asking now," said Harry. He described their predicament as briefly as he could without leaving out anything important.

Dumbledore's portrait looked grim. "I would suggest that Miss Lovegood's assessment is accurate. You may need to hope for help outside yourselves - perhaps from a change in circumstances, or a predecessor, or just dumb luck as some might call it."

"But Professor..." began Harry.

"I'm sorry, Harry. I don't think I can advise you further," said the figure in the portrait abruptly and beginning to sound rather distant. "Miss Granger, if you would be so kind I think I would prefer it if you would continue to keep me in the dark unless you succeed in finding a solution."

They watched to see if Dumbledore would add anything but he had gone to the edge of his painting and was staring sideways. He would not look directly at any of them.

Reluctantly, Hermione placed the portrait back in her bag and closed it.

"What in Merlin's pants did that mean!" said Ron.

"I don't think he can... bear to watch any longer," said Hermione.

Harry's shoulders slumped. All his old feelings of being cheated, of being locked out of some useful information came flooding back. He felt a terrible emptiness inside. He had felt so reassured when Dumbledore first spoke that it was even harder to accept what seemed like a rejection. He looked up and saw the disappointment in Luna's eyes and he knew that her disappointment was not because of what the portrait had said. Harry felt ashamed. He stood up abruptly.

"Okay. You heard what he said," said Harry, with a hoarse brightness in his voice that surprised even himself. "Our job is to persist, to keep trying as long as we can, and to trust that some kind of help might... just happen... somehow."

Harry's short rallying speech had ended rather weakly but the others all stood up - not for any reason other than that it seemed more positive than sitting down.

"I might not be able to completely stop the worst melancholy curses but I'm not going to do their work for them - I refuse to despair while I have the will! Whose with me? Ginny, start the entertainment again! Come on! We have work to do keeping positive and a job to finish! I can't do it for you!" Harry chastised them and they understood perfectly - they all had to work not just follow.

They soon resumed their slow advance through the drab, windowless, claustrophobic corridors. They were all now pushed to the limit and almost afraid to sleep and even then they tried always to always keep at least six of them awake. Two or three of them might sleep for a couple of hours and that was the best they could hope for.

Four of them were testing for curses and applying counter-curses and shields. But the shields had no long-lasting effect and so had to be applied again and again. Despite all their efforts, the rowdy songs and storytelling were wearing very thin. Only Feya's singing kept their morale alive temporarily.

"Body," said Harry from the lead. It was a sign of his state of mind that he did not even sound excited - like he found a dozen dead bodies every other day before breakfast. "Think it's Draco."

"He's scarcely breathing," said Bingley, after a quick check. "There doesn't seem to be anything wrong other than that he has lost all hope. I think he is conscious but in some inner nightmare of futility. I think eventually he would not even bother to breath."

She started to apply counter-spells but it was not enough. Hermione joined her in the effort but it took five more of them applying their wands before he showed some improvement. All he could do was mutter his disinterest.

"I think we should leave it for a while and try again in twenty or thirty minutes. I think eventually we can bring him round," said Bingley. She looked at Harry meaningfully. "We need all the help we can get. Have we a spare wand?"

"No way!" said Ron, getting half-excited about something for the first time in hours. "He's not having a bloody wand."

"Ron's right," said Harry. "Malfoy would be more trouble than he's worth."

"He's a Slytherin - he'd stab us all in the back if he could gain from it," said Ron.

"I suggest we immobilize him and hover him with us," said Hermione. "He'll be unconscious so he won't be affected further by the curses. It won't be too much trouble. We can restore him later."

Bingley nodded. "Yes, once we're through the maze." There was a grim note to her voice and a barely-suppressed trace of sarcasm. Harry wondered if she were succumbing too.

"I'd use him as a marker," muttered Ron. Nobody protested and nobody laughed either.

"Professor, do these curses affect us differently - I mean are some of us more susceptible to one than another?" said Harry.

"Yes, and some more resistant," she replied. "We must all look out for one another and help to protect those most likely to weaken." She glanced at the little elf who was more and more silent except when she sang.

The hours that followed were an ever increasing nightmare. They all grew intensely weary from the effort and the constant draining of their morale. Feya was the first to irretrievably collapse.

"Inevitable, I'm afraid," said Bingley, as they took it in turns to apply counter-curses to the elf but with little success. "The curses are not getting any worse but they are wearing down our magical protections slowly but surely."

Luna looked up. She had been crouched over Feya the longest and there were dark shadows around her eyes. "If the curses have not gotten any worse we're probably going the right way."

"Luna's right," said Harry, but his voice was flat and his response had the air of being automatic. "We must push on. We'll get there in the end."

Nobody thought it likely anymore. Each had forced themself to keep all negative feelings to themselves. This was good for the group but bad for each individual to be brooding inwardly. It was hard not to. Conversation was becoming abbreviated. Feet were dragging. Draco hovering behind seemed like they were followed by the Grim Reaper and was a constant reminder of their likely fate.

Rolf was now carrying Feya in an improvised sling like a sick baby. Nobody sang anymore. Regular doses of wine were still taken and its magical effects definitely helped but there was no other partying, no storytelling and the joke books were put away when they found they no longer understood any of the jokes. All effort was put into pushing one foot ahead of the other and marking and listing and checking and mapping.

Over the next few hours most of them collapsed at some time or other and each time it was a big task for the others to bring them back to their feet. Although their bodies were aching and fatigued, the cause of their falls was not physical; it was sheer loss of will. There really seemed no good reason to get up again until they were dragged to their feet by the others and bombarded by counter-curses.

Still they persisted. They lost all sense of time. There were more and more errors in their lists. Markers were definitely disappearing or being moved. Nobody was speaking except where it was essential and all were staring blankly ahead of themselves, not looking at each other. Ron and Hermione were holding hands. Ginny had drawn to Harry and was holding onto his arm. She had abandoned her numbered letters list and Harry was now doing it. There was a definite sense that the end was near.

Hermione fell and Ron fell seconds later. It seemed he had been relying on her totally for the last hour. Everyone else moved in to help but there was no concern, no reaction from anyone except the automatic response to apply counter-curses. Ginny sat with them and used her wand listlessly. Then her arm relaxed and the wand slipped from her grasp. She never got up. Neville was immobilizing all three of them as a lasting protection and applying a hover charm but he was sinking to his knees as he did so. Rolf was swaying on his feet, staring at Harry. Luna was down.

~~~~~~~~~~~~


All was dark, completely black.

"Lumos Maxima!" cried a lone voice and there was struggle in its tone. The illumination was wafted gently up to the ceiling from the elder wand.

"Luna! Luna! Shake yourself! We have to go back!" It was Harry's voice. "You were right. We were wrong. Come on! Together!"

Luna wearily opened her eyes. Harry was sitting on the floor by her side, chanting. The elder wand was pouring his magic into her but with only a small effect. "Why, Harry?"

Harry had to make a huge effort not to despair when he saw that this was as much as even the most powerful wand in the world could do. He felt the pull of injustice; a surge of monumental unfairness. Why did it always fall to him? He who had already laid down his life; sacrificed all, must he continue to lay it down? Would it never end? Would his enemy's dark will linger forever? He fought these feelings but he was mentally so tired. He wanted so badly to close his eyes and just give up.

Harry forced himself to look round. The bodies of his friends lay everywhere. The girl he loved might be dead. All marks and markers were now gone from this hallway; his scorchmarks, the Flagrate number he had cast for Ginny; Hermione's pages - all gone. The travellers could be anywhere. The only light was the one he had just cast. He went past despair. There was no need to despair. He just did not care. Everyone was down. He knew some must be dying. It did not seem too important. What little willpower remained to him prompted him to retreat.

"Luna, together, a patronus. We must try," pleaded Harry weakly.

Luna tried to roll onto her side and Harry helped her. He could now barely sit straight himself and was slouched over, propping himself up with one hand on the floor. Rolf lay close by still clutching Feya wrapped in his sling. His eyes were open and he was looking at Luna but Harry could not tell if he cared about her or even if he knew her.

With Harry's help Luna lurched and squirmed up to sit against a wall and pulled out her wand. "Help Rolf." She did not know why she said it. It seemed to be something to say. Harry turned to Rolf. Luna began to cast counter-spells on herself automatically. Doing what she could merely to stay at the same level - though she did not really know why she was even trying.

Harry pulled Rolf up to sit beside Luna at the wall and summoned all the magic he could through the elder wand to cast a counter-spell at him. Rolf recovered slightly but was barely able to lift his wand let alone use it. The three of them could not properly sit upright. They did nothing but try to treat each other, continuously testing and chanting counter-curses and trying to build up their resolve for one last effort. But it was all for nothing.

"Happy thoughts. Think happy thoughts," said Luna sadly as she let slip her wand and skidded sideways down along the wall to wedge against Rolf's shoulder. She stared at the shoulder like it was some unknown obstruction.

"Come on, Rolf," said Harry. "Just us then. Happy thoughts. We summon our patronuses to go back to the banquet. We can follow. We can still do it."

Rolf was moving his wand and so was Harry moving his but there was nothing. It was like a thousand dementors sapping their hearts and souls out of them. Finally, silvery blue light flowed weakly from Harry's wand and there was a tremor of anticipation; then the ghostly light faded and died and so did their last hope. Rolf let his arm drop and his wand slipped from his feeble grip to the hard stone floor.

The elder wand fell too with a clatter. There was something very final in the act and in the sound. The three of them were aware of each other but had nothing left to say. They were not really waiting for the end. It no longer mattered whether the end came sooner or later or if they stopped as they were forever.

"Hinkypunk." Luna tried to raise an arm to point but it flopped back at her side.

Harry, tilted over, looked sideways. For a few moments the bland maze floor seemed like a wall and the wall seemed to be the floor but he was used to that disorienting effect. Something very small and faint was fluttering down at the edge of the floor-wall, right at the corner of a turn. Whether it was the next turn or the previous one, Harry had no idea anymore.

Rolf stared too. He knew what it was. The sight of it seemed to kick-start some hope, some meaning. He lunged and collapsed forwards and crawled away from the others towards the silvery light at the corner. The light flickered more strongly and it rose off the floor, waiting.

"You did it, Rolf," said Harry, with mild curiosity, not sure what exactly Rolf had achieved. He fell sideways to crawl after Rolf then stopped. He grabbed at Luna's arm to urge her along.

"Harry, you sure it's not a hinkypunk?" she said.

"No. Rolf's patronus, Luna. Sure it is. Rolf did it."

"Wands," said Luna.

Harry wondered if he should bother gathering up their wands.

"Wands," said Luna again.

"Okay... right... wands," said Harry and he made an effort to collect them up.

"No, Harry. Wands," said Luna yet again. "Sure it's not a hinkypunk?"

Then Harry realized what she meant. Rolf could not have summoned his patronus; he had no wand. But Rolf was blindly following something. Perhaps Luna was right. Luna was always right. It must be a hinkypunk. It would lure them into a bog.

It occurred to Harry that something was better than nothing; even a bad something. A bog was different. Different is good surely. They could not be in a worse fix than they now were. He looked back at the others. He could not help them nor did he care to. He looked at Luna. He could not carry her and he felt sure he could not cast any more charms. He was on his hands and knees. He laid himself down, face-down.

"On my back. Might need you," urged Harry. "We're going after the hinkypunk."

"Why?" said Luna.

"Luna. It's a rare specimen. You have to... It's your job." Harry was talking wildly, foolishly but he would not mind if Luna did not want to come.

"That's silly," said Luna, but she swayed to fall over Harry's back and clung to his neck. Her grip was so weak he expected her to slip away as soon as he moved. He decided it was not worth moving anyway. He would just lie here on these slabs like a cold wet cod with the fishmonger's huge hand pressed on his back ready to...

"Harry," said Luna. "hinkypunk escaping."

"Oh. Right."

Harry pulled himself forward dragging Luna with him. Rolf had already disappeared around the corner. Harry could not make the effort to call out to him. He whispered over his shoulder, "Hang on tight, Luna. All you have to do is hang on."

Luna's grip tightened. One hand grasping his shoulder while the fingers of the other dug into his throat. Harry made a great effort to push himself forward along the floor, faster and faster but he couldn't keep a very straight course. It reminded him of the view of the snake, Nagini.

"Hang on tight. Just hang on," said Luna in a kind of sing-song dreamy way.

Harry reached the corner. Rolf had not gone far. He had stopped and was staring back at Harry. Harry suspected he was puzzled but was too weak to express it. He had good reason to. Even Luna could see it was definitely not a hinkypunk. It was a sparrowhawk patronus.

Nobody spoke about it. They did not discuss it. What each of them was thinking was an impossibility and too much effort to talk about. All of their effort went into following the ghostly bird.

Corridor after corridor they crawled. The patronus sometimes rested on the ground for them to catch up but then fluttered on, silently moving to the next corner, then the next. Its translucent wings made no sound as they beat the air. It's silvery gold eyes conveyed intelligence and its every movement suggested promise, certainty, direction, and meaning within the pointlessness of the dreary hallways.

Harry thought about the banquet hall and sitting in front of the log fire with a big mug of tea.

Luna was wondering whether they need bother sending their own patronuses back for the others once they got there.

Rolf was not thinking anything anymore. If he thought at all he thought he was dead. All that existed for him was the patronus and that he must follow it forever until he found his grandfather. Then he would be home.




Chapter 28: The Dark Lady
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"Merlin's Curse! - someone got through!" The tone of voice was harsh, astonished, and curious. It was a man speaking and he did not sound friendly. "Three of 'em!"

There was a short silence broken only by hesitant, metal-capped footsteps ringing on the stone flags and coming closer. Harry's ear, pressed against that stone, listened for more - something to tell him what was going on. He wondered how he had got there and why his throat felt sore and why there was a weight on his back. He opened his eyes cautiously just a crack and peered through his eyelashes but all he could see was a floor slab and the base of a nearby wood-panelled wall. There was a partly-carved wooden pillar against the wall. It was very plain carving, just a scroll design and border etched into the woodwork, but it seemed to richly overload his senses after the drabness of the maze. He gazed at it, drinking in the detail, unwilling to look away. He vaguely remembered crawling pointlessly after something towards... The banquet hall. Kingsley and his Aurors are here. Harry was still partly affected by confusion and despondency but he actually felt a slight sense of relief.

"Fetch Lestraithe. We'll have to fetch Lestraithe." This was a second man's voice. It was deep and powerful. Harry pictured a large man and the heaviness of new footsteps Harry felt in the cold slab beneath him supported this impression. They caught Lestraithe! That's how Kingsley got through!

"Don't call her that! The Dark Lord has commanded it. Come on, Wilmot, let's check them first," said the harsh voice. "Get their wands."

Harry felt large rough hands grabbing at his wrist and snatching the wand from his grasp. The man stank of unwashed sweat. Harry had a short glimpse of a fat, swarthy face but much of its complexion seemed to be greasy dirt. He wondered why they were taking his wand. The weight on his spine and shoulders was being twisted partly away to one side and cool air was now reaching his back. He remembered - it had been Luna clinging to his neck.

"Just one wand, Farindon - this other ain't got one," said Wilmot from close above him. His deep, booming voice carried a tone of disappointment.

"This 'un's got an elf! No wand but he's carrying an elf! Honest, Wilmot - look! What's he carrying an elf for you reckon?" asked Farindon contemptuously. Harry got the sense that this man's voice was always going to be harsh and scornful.

"Never saw a thestral though... Did you?" asked Wilmot moving away from Harry, presumably to look for one.

"Stay here and watch 'em," said the harsh-voiced Farindon. "I'll tell the Dark Lady."

Harry heard the metal-capped footsteps moving away and distant doors being opened and closed. He wondered whether he should try to move but he still had Luna's weight half across his hips. He was aware of a sharp pain in his side where he was lying on his small carry bag and he was pressed down by Luna as well. He decided it was not worth the effort. Kingsley would sort it out.

He was aware of Wilmot coming closer again - not from his footsteps but his smell - and his breathing was getting heavier. He felt Luna's arm pulled roughly and she whimpered. There was a distant sound of a door and footsteps running towards them. Harry heard Wilmot's breathing move away quickly from Luna. His stink took a little longer to follow him. Two people, both talking excitedly together, burst into the room from somewhere behind Harry.

"Who are they?" Lestraithe's voice.

"We don't know my lady," said Farindon. His voice was still harsh in tone but now solicitous, almost grovelling.

Harry heard Lestraithe let out a long breath of air as she swept quickly up to him.

"It's Potter! It's bloody Harry Potter! The Dark Lord will be thrilled!" cried Lestraithe. There was only a moment's pause then, "His wand! Did you get his wand?"

"I've got it. It's mine," said Wilmot but his deep voice was even lower as if he vainly hoped nobody would hear what he said.

"Give it me Wilmot! Give it here!" ordered Lestraithe loudly. Harry sensed some reluctance in the silence and the hesitation of the big man.

Lestraithe shrieked. "Yes!" It was a cry of exultation. Harry wished he could see properly; see their expressions. He wondered why he cared anyway. Kingsley would sort it all out.

"Did you fight him, Wilmot?"

"What? No... He... They just crawled in like this we think. We found them like this on our patrol. They're not really in any condition to fight are they?" There was a puzzled tone to the big man's voice. One could tell he felt it unfair that his new wand had been taken from him and puzzled to as to why Lestraithe was so excited about it.

"Set him up! Against that wall!" said Lestraithe. "Is he still confused? Despondent? Does he give a damn? Set him up I say."

Big hands dragged Harry and pulled him into a sitting position against a wall. He felt relief from the sharp pain of lying on his bag but now he was sitting on it and the strap was cutting into his waist instead. His head hung down but he could not be bothered to lift it up. Vaguely, he saw the three standing figures and the forms of Luna and Rolf lying on the floor. Luna's eyes were slightly open, staring vacantly, disinterested. It was a small, unfurnished room. The floor had similar square stones to the maze and he could see what must be a maze corridor through a doorway. The walls of this room however, were panelled in a light-coloured wood, dulled by age. A blurred figure came close and a cold hand hit him hard across the face and his head swung sideways and lolled back down again.

Harry felt something hard thrust into his hand and the figure stepped quickly back. He could see a wand hanging limply from his flimsy grip. It was never going to work like that he knew. It seemed quite silly - something out of the joke book. He considered whether he ought to laugh. He would look stupid if they thought he did not get the joke.

"Expelliarmus!" shrieked Lestraithe.

The wand flew out of Harry's grasp and disappeared upwards out of his line of sight in the direction of Lestraithe. She shrieked with maniacal laughter. "Mine! It's mine! It's mine now!"

Harry tried to join in the laughter but it was hard to make an effort. It seemed to be some sort of game or perhaps they were practising casting spells.

"There's an elf here my lady..." said Farindon after a while. He sounded like he was trying to change the topic of an awkward conversation - to distract Lestraithe from her obsession with the new wand. He too was puzzled by Lestraithe's preoccupation with it.

"An elf?" said Lestraithe. "He can be put with the others later - no, wait. Is that his master? Or this witch?"

"Dunno."

"Well find out then, Farindon!" Lestraithe whined sarcastically.

Harry could just see the harsh-voiced man, Farindon, shaking Rolf roughly and slapping his face. His metal-toed shoes scraping on the stone slabs were as harsh as his voice when he turned. "This your elf?" There was only an incoherent muttered response.

The big fat man grasped Luna and lifted her and shook her lightly like a ragdoll. "You own that elf?" Luna's head flopped back and forth and her long straggly hair tossed like a golden mop but she did not respond at all.

"If it's hers then it might be Potter's too," said Farindon. There was an extra coating of scorn in his voice. "She was hugging him close..."

"But she's not the Weasley girl. Where's the Weasley girl?" said Lestraithe.

"These are the only ones who got through," said Farindon.

Harry felt his hair pulled and his head jerked upright.

"Abandoned the Weasley wench did you? Fancy this one now do you?" sneered Lestraithe in her high whining voice.

"Incarcerous!" said Lestraithe and Harry felt himself bound; his arms trapped at his sides. It seemed a waste of time to him since he had no intention of going anywhere. It must surely be another joke or more practice. It was strange that the Aurors would let this woman practice magic.

Lestraithe was chanting something softly now, moving her wand over Harry. It felt like the jolting impact of a huge sniff of Snape's peppermint camphor bottle but without the smell. He started coughing and his head began to clear. Once emptied, his mind was soon filled again with real concerns as reality hit him and he absorbed what had been happening. Ginny - dead or dying! The elder wand taken! The Death Eaters have it! Lestraithe is its master now!

"Whose is the elf, Potter?" demanded Lestraithe.

Harry glared at her and remained silent not just in defiance but because he was still gathering his thoughts.

"Hurt his girlfriend - just a little," said Lestraithe. "See if that will loosen his tongue. Wait..."

Harry struggled to speak but his mouth and throat were still stiff.

Lestraithe chanted some counter-curses and moved her wand over Luna's body. Luna stirred and opened her eyes wider.

"There - she'll appreciate it all the more now," said Lestraithe. There was satisfaction in her voice.

"No! Don't!" Harry's voice was strained and rough as if his throat was dry. "The elf - she's Rolf's! The house-elf serves Rolf Scamander only," cried Harry.

"Female eh? That'll be useful," said Lestraithe. "We've not got enough bitches."

"Can the wench be of use then?" growled Wilmot then quickly added, "my lady?"

"Potter! Is she pure blood?" said Lestraithe. "What's her lineage?"

Harry hesitated. He knew that Luna would likely be killed if he pretended she was anything less than half-blood. "Yes... She's... Luna Lovegood, daughter of Xeno Lovegood. He's a well known wizard - produces the Quibbler. Her mother was a witch too."

"Good enough," said Lestraithe. "I'll check it though... We need all the Death Eaters we can get."

Farindon scowled. "You said there was a Weasley girl?"

"Go get her if you want," said Lestraithe. "I know her already. She's pureblood. We need every one now."

Harry listened helplessly. He did not struggle against his bonds nor did he cry out. He knew it would avail him nothing. He must think. There was something he knew; something he must remember.

There was silence.

"Well?" said Lestraithe.

"My lady... I... Nobody cannot go in there..." said Farindon. "She's likely dead anyway."

"Almost certainly," said Lestraithe then added in a crafty voice, "But it's your duty is it not? We need more Death Eaters?"

"My lady... should I fail... Should I die in there... We... You lose a Death Eater for nothing - a risk for only a slight possibility."

"You won't die, Farindon," said Lestraithe, "not unless you are extremely stupid. You will suffer yes - but it's for the greater good! It's for the Dark Lord!"

"My lady..."

"Get yourself a thestral from the stables and go! I command it!" cried Lestraithe. There was a feeling she was less interested in the success of the mission than in her cruel power over Farindon. "Kill the others if they're not dead yet."

She turned away then suddenly added, "No, I was forgetting Draco. He's soft and weak - but he's got the right outlook I'll give him that. He was with them. Bring him back too if he's still alive."

Come on, Harry! Think! Harry lifted his head high and looked around. Farindon was going slowly and reluctantly out through a doorway to his left. He presumably would have to come back this way with a thestral to get into the maze - but how long before he returned? Lestraithe was looking at Harry. He could tell she knew what he was doing and she was enjoying it. The big man was standing there slack-jawed with his hoggish eyes on Luna who lay sprawled helplessly at his feet, still partly confused and without a weapon. Rolf and Feya lay behind the bloated contours of the big man and Harry knew Rolf also was without a wand. If only they had not dropped them... Wait - I picked them up didn't I? What did I do with them? He fidgeted uncomfortably and his bag cord cut into him even more deeply and then he remembered.

"Trying to think of a way out eh, Potter?" sneered Lestraithe. "Well, I ain't Malfoy; I take no chances. You'll never get an opportunity. Maybe we can use you to infiltrate the ministry. You're the ultimate celebrity, Potter. People will listen to you. Or maybe you can just dance for the Dark Lord's amusement. And you'll do it too. Whatever we want!"

Lestraithe was both sharp and observant. She spotted the puzzled look in Harry's eyes.

"Oh, yes - you still think the Dark Lord is dead don't you?" She looked at him closely, hoping to see some fear, some doubt. She was like a dementor, always looking for negative feelings and maliciously enjoying them. "You'll see, Potter. Then you'll believe."

She turned away and strode off after Farindon. She called back over her shoulder, "Put them in one of the..." She stopped, turned slowly deep in thought, then she came back.

"Shame we don't have more cells this side. Can't leave the elf with its master and it'll help the others if we put it with them..."

"Can't we put the elf on its own, my lady?" asked Wilmot.

"Perhaps - but I want to be sure in case they come in contact if we're careless. Try to think of every possibility, Wilmot - remember that! New elves can be a lot of bother until we've..."

She paced up and down for a while, thinking hard. Finally, she crouched over Rolf and used a binding charm to hold him. She looked at her wand and nodded with satisfaction. She felt she was its master and it responded well. As with Harry, she worked her counter-charms to release Rolf's mind from the curses of the maze. After each successive spell she looked at her wand and smiled with some inner joy. Harry stared in amazement at her but not with disappointment. Instead, he felt a burden lifting from him. Inwardly he was jubilant but he made sure he did not show it.

It was not the elder wand. He was not sure whose it was but it was not the elder wand. It looked more like Rolf's wand. There was still hope. He must have got the three mixed up when he picked them all up in the maze. The elder wand must be in his bag along with Luna's. Whatever Lestraithe believed she did not have the elder wand nor was she even master of the one she had because she had not defeated its real master.

Rolf angrily made some rasping noises and tried to clear his throat. Harry could see a gathering rage in the young Scamander's face as he began to comprehend - or rather, care about - what he had been hearing for the last few minutes. He received a hefty blow from Lestraithe's back hand.

"You will command your elf not to obey these other two," whined Lestraithe. "You will--"

"I will most likely bury your head in a faraway place, you hag." croaked Rolf.

Lestraithe did not sigh; she smiled broadly. Unlike the cold, robotic Worley, she seemed to rejoice when she had an excuse to use pain. "Crucio!"

She sustained the curse for several seconds while Rolf's face contorted with the pain.

"I can just as easily do that longer - on your friends," said Lestraithe. "Don't waste any more of my time. Your elf - it must not obey these two."

Rolf sagged visibly. "My house-elf is severely disabled by curses. The maze affected her very badly. She won't understand me."

"You think I'm stupid? I heal the elf and you disapparate with her..." Lestraithe thought for a while then dragged the elf roughly out from Rolf's sling and away from contact with him then used one counter-curse on her. Feya began to stir slightly.

Rolf spoke to Feya but he was looking Harry directly in the eye, pleading with him to understand something. "Feya, I hope you can hear me. I command you absolutely. You must only take orders directly from your master. You must refuse any other requests of any kind from anybody else. Tell me you will only obey your master and no other."

Harry's mind was racing as he stared back at Rolf. He had a faint idea he knew what Rolf was trying to tell him. Something he had said in the maze. What was it he had said?

"Feya will only obey Feya's master and no other," said the elf faintly.

"Good. She'll recover in time - but she won't be with you." Lestraith laughed at Rolf and turned to Wilmot.

"Wilmot! Put Scamander in the first cell and all the others including the elf in the other. Whatever you do, don't put the elf with Scamander." Lestraithe turned to leave. "And search them all thoroughly. Make sure they have no charms or jinxes or other devices hidden away."

Lestraithe went out through the door and Wilmot sneered as he reached for Luna. Rolf swore viciously at him but Harry spoke loudly above him. He knew now what must be done.

"Wilmot! Pay Attention! You're forgetting!" cried Harry, as firmly as he could. Wilmot looked startled at the sound of his voice as if he was used to jumping to a command but had not expected one. "The elf is starting to recover - and it's still near its master. Your orders were to put us in the cells! The Dark Lady will punish you just as quickly as she does us."

Wilmot came over to Harry. The wild look was gone from his eyes. He was a very big man. He curled up a huge fist and punched Harry savagely in the face.

"I can hand out punishments myself don't forget." growled the man. "I know what you're trying to do but you won't succeed. I'll do as I please. Lestraithe won't care."

He turned to Rolf, leaned down and grasped his ankle. "Let's get rid of all you lot first."

He dragged Rolf carelessly towards the doorway like a sack on a string and went through it, slamming it behind himself. Harry heard a lock turn.

"Feya! Do you hear me? Do you understand me?" called Harry in a loud whisper.

"Feya understands Harry Potter sir." The elf's voice sounded very weak indeed.

"Master Rolf gave you an order in the maze - you remember? You must obey Luna as if it were an order from Master Rolf. Do you remember? Do you understand? It means that Miss Luna is your master too. You said you would obey her."

"Feya must obey Miss Luna. Feya is happy to obey Miss Luna."

"Good! Luna! Luna! Can you understand me?"

"Harry. Is it breakfast already?"

"Luna! You must hold on to Feya and order her to disapparate you both. Do you understand me?"

"Then it's breakfast?"

"Yes, then it's breakfast. Anything you want."

"Anything I want? A million puddings? That's silly, Harry," Luna had a foolish half-smile on her face but she was staring far away. "Silly Harry."

"Just do it, Luna!" said Harry sternly. He could hear Wilmot's heavy footsteps returning. "Hold Feya's hand and order her to disapparate!"

"What about you, Harry?"

"Don't worry about me, Luna. Just go!" cried Harry.

"Shan't!" said Luna and she sounded cross. "Won't leave you and Rolf."

"Feya! Hold onto Miss Luna quickly and get her to safety!" cried Harry.

"Feya cannot obey Harry Potter, sir. Feya is very unhappy," wailed the little elf.

"Feya! Don't you care about Miss Luna? She's in danger!" Harry cried desperately in a loud whisper now as he heard Wilmot right outside.

As the lock turned on the door there was a sharp click and Luna and Feya disapparated. Harry wondered numbly how and why and where they had gone exactly. He had forgotten to tell them. He did not know what to tell them anyway and Luna had given no order. The maze? Where?

The big man filled the open doorway. There was a delayed reaction while he stared in disbelief into the room. Then, with a deep roar like a mad bull he charged at Harry. He picked him up and shook him viciously like a terrier with a rat. "Where they gone?"

"I don't know!" cried Harry. "I honestly don't know. They just went!"

Wilmot flung him down in disgust. Harry was now in a lot of pain in his side and his neck. It felt like a rib or something was broken. He was still tightly bound and that compression against his chest made the pain worse. Wilmot ran to the maze and part way into it but soon came back. He kept looking round and round the empty room as if there could be some hiding place but the room was just an empty space except for himself and Harry; there were no furnishings at all, no closets or cabinets. Wilmot had no idea what to do and neither did Harry.

He went to the door again, hesitated, then came back and grabbed at Harry's leg. He dragged him like he had dragged Rolf except that Harry was crying out in pain at every twist and turn. In the next corridor Harry could see only one heavily-ribbed, solid bronze gate similar to the one in the Manse courtyard then, to its right, an open doorway and two other steel doors beyond it. These looked as sturdy as the one in the banquet hall that had been magically sealed. Wilmot opened one and flung Harry inside and something snapped as Harry fell flat on his back. Wilmot never spoke; he was clearly preoccupied and panicky. He slammed the door on Harry then all was silent except for the heavy footfalls of the big man fading into the distance. Harry was in complete darkness, helplessly bound and in extreme pain. The ceiling above was lost in the blackness and it was hard to see to the sides.

He tried to turn but the pain was more than he could bear - yet he had achieved a small movement. Harry rested from that first try, thinking hard. Perhaps Wilmot's rough handling had loosened the binds just a little but what could he do? He was still on his back. He could see a faint light under the door. Instead of turning, he pushed out with his legs and feet; sliding himself backwards along the floor towards the door. Perhaps it was not locked. The chest pain was almost tolerable if he kept reasonably straight and didn't turn or twist too much but his head movements caused such pain in his neck he was afraid he was doing more damage to himself.

He bumped his head futilely against the metal door but there was no possibility of opening it even if it were unlocked. He stared at the line of light under the door. At least it was a frame of reference. He remembered the blackness of the void and his body shuddered involuntarily at the memory - triggering stabs of pain in his side.

Come on, Harry! Think!

He pushed himself further around the floor to estimate the size and shape of the cell. A bad smell was becoming more and more noticeable. Harry felt a wave of helpless fear as he recalled the inferius - the Voldemort inferius. A feeling of horror crawled over his skin as he imagined it in there with him - creeping, groping.

Stop it, Harry! Focus! Think of Ginny! She needs you! You have to find a way!

He pushed on along the floor, his face and chest soaked in sweat and his back cold against the stone slabs. He collided with something hard and metallic. It rolled back and forth slightly as he bumped it; he could hear it faintly. He worked around it, trying to judge what it might be. His eyes were beginning to adjust to the tiny amount of light leaking in from under the door. It was just an overturned bucket. He had found the source of the bad smell.

There was more pain suddenly without warning as his neck muscles began to cramp against the cold slabs of the floor. The spasms came in continuous waves and did not stop for almost a minute. Harry sobbed shamelessly and gritted his teeth, trying to keep absolutely still.

Don't worry about the pain. I can heal myself later. I can..."

He had been forgetting the wands in his bag. Harry could have almost laughed. How absurd he thought to himself. Here he was: he was master of the most powerful wand in the world and he had it with him yet he was as helpless as a baby. Men would kill for the power of that wand. Men had killed for it - a sobering thought as he contemplated his predicament.

He tried to feel where the bag was. He could not move his arms much. His hands were free but his arms were strapped to his sides with the ropes. Where was the bag? It usually hurt if he lay on it and he could not feel it on top of him. He could not even feel the cord which had been cutting into him earlier. Reluctantly, he had to accept that the bag was gone.

Harry could not physically sink down any lower but his spirits did. He tried to remember when he had last felt the bag. It was not easy. He had been pre-occupied with Wilmot's fist and then being shaken had been agony; Wilmot was a very powerful man. He had then... The bag had been with him when he was dragged along! He knew that. It was the least of his sufferings at that time but he did remember it being trapped under him and digging into his waist.

It was as he was flung into this cell, Harry felt sure. He recalled something snapping. He had thought it was his arm or his rib.

Harry began sliding back and forth in the middle of the cell in line with the door. He was yelling loudly with pain at every move but he just let it out. It was easier with nobody to see his fear and his cowardice. Desperation kept him pushing along. If the bag was anywhere in the cell surely it would be somewhere around the middle in line with the door. He collided with the bucket again and swore. Time seemed so precious. Ginny, Hermione, Ron, and the others - they would certainly be dying. He pushed past the bucket and his head bumped into something else. He hoped it might be the bag so he worked around again and back towards it then past it to try to get one hand near it. His head collided with the bucket again and again he cursed loudly.

He'd missed it. Somehow he had missed the bag and now he was exhausted with the effort and the suffering. He tried to turn without thinking and felt more pain in his side but something was against his elbow. He inched himself along until his hand made contact and his fingers felt the texture. It was the rough leather of his carry bag.

Painstakingly he fumbled with the catch on the bag but he could get no leverage with his arms bound at his sides. His limited finger movements frustratingly just pushed the bag away and although he could bend his hand he could not rotate it sideways much. Then he heard something. He strained his ears, listening. It was distant footsteps running towards him. They would get the real elder wand! He must not let them no matter what. Fiercely he struggled, turning against the pain, now pushing the bag along with his head, biting his lip, trying to obscure the bag under him as best he could - anything so they might not notice it.

Light flooded into the cell as the door was opened wide. It was Lestraithe. She cast a light with her wand, almost blinding Harry as it drifted up to the ceiling right in his line of view.

"At least we still have Potter," said Lestraithe. She turned to the doorway where Wilmot's great hulk stood.

"You do realize that if he had gone missing your life would be... Let's just say you'd be better off cutting your own throat. I've already told the Dark Lord we have him. On no account must he get away. Forget the others. What's one more elf and a wench anyway? There's no way out so they're dead sooner or later. But Potter... He's a real prize! We must have a constant guard..." Lestraithe paused. "You did search them all didn't you?"

"I searched Scamander. I'd only just got to Potter when the girl and the elf were gone."

"Idiot! Search him now. Every inch! His shoes - everything! What if he's got something in his pockets?"

Wilmot was tired of Lestraithe's chastisements. He reached down and angrily undid Harry's bindings and wrenched them aside. Harry screamed in pain at every movement.

"What the hell you done to him?" said Lestraithe. "We need him! Don't you understand he's more bloody useful to us than you are!"

She crouched over Harry and used her wand. "Two broken ribs... Torn ligament in the neck... Not to mention his face! Nice going Wilmot. If you'd broken his neck then your own would on the line for sure."

She cast some healing spells. The pain lessened but Harry's body still ached a little. He did not dare move.

Wilmot began his search. He was rough and crude. He tore at his clothing, ripped off pockets and rolled Harry over face down then back again. The man examined Harry's trainers then flung them in a corner. He even ran a big meaty paw through Harry's hair.

"Just a watch and that's all." Wilmot was testing the watch with his wand. "Nothing special." He slipped it into his own pocket.

Lestraithe, who had been watching carefully, declared, "Good. No food. No water. No nothing till I see him tomorrow. Nobody gets in or out of this cell. Continuous guard outside the door. Nobody opens this door again except me. Understand?"

"Understood, my lady." Wilmot's tone was now one of relief and surprise. Lestraithe was unpredictable. He had not been sure of exactly how she would react to the loss of the girl and the elf but he had been expecting some punishment. Perhaps she was just so relieved that Potter had not escaped also.

The two of them went out and again there was the metallic clang as the door was slammed shut. Lestraithe's light was still hovering near the ceiling but how long it might last, Harry did not know. He heard what was likely the other cell door slam shut after a while then faint footsteps fading away.

He was still lying down. He felt his ribs and neck cautiously then slowly sat up. He was stiff and sore but the extreme pain was gone. How much time? How long is it since I left Ginny? Even if he had his watch he had no idea what time it had been when he last saw her - collapsing in the maze.

Harry stood up and went to the bucket. He reached inside and took out the bag he had nudged inside with his head. With trembling fingers he took out the elder wand which he held up like a trophy. He could have kissed it. He did kiss it.

He used the wand to repair the bag strap, slipped it around his waist again, grabbed his trainers and sat down to put them on while he tried to think out a plan. There was no time to lose. He had a small flagon of water in his bag and he drank half quickly then used the refilling charm. He kept the elder wand constantly in his hand and put the flagon back in his bag and checked what he had in there. The other wand - it was either Rolf's or Luna's - was resting next to his own original wand and the invisibility cloak. He had no doubt that he could get out of this cell and dispose of whatever guard - probably Wilmot - was immediately outside but then he was unsure what to do. He did not know how many other Death Eaters there were. According to Lestraithe there were not enough for them but that was relative to the world. A thousand Death Eaters was not a huge amount for repopulating the entire planet but they would be formidable in combat and Harry did not want to face them all at once.

It seemed that stealth was essential to gather information but he had already blown his cover. After all they had suffered to get through, all the care taken, he had stupidly blundered right into the enemy and been captured. To complicate matters, his friends were still lost in the maze, Ginny at risk of capture and Rolf already a prisoner in another cell. If there was a way to save them all and regroup and do it secretly then it eluded Harry Potter.

His priority, he knew, was the world curse. Sacrifice his friends to save the majority - 'for the greater good.' Yet he had no information at all about the curse or how urgent it was to defeat it. That decided him. His friends were in peril this very moment. If they were not already dead then it was certain they would be within a few hours. Every time he thought of it he felt more and more empty inside. He closed his bag firmly as he prepared for action. He stood well back from the cell door and faced it. He cautiously cast a shield charm upon himself first. It was just as well that he did.

"Confringo!"

A rebounding shock wave blew the bucket and years of dust from the cell floor but the backflow was fortunately blocked by Harry's shield. The steel door did not fare so well. It exploded in a fireball and folded in two horizontally as it was flung away like a cheap kite in a gale. It embedded itself in the corridor wall opposite. Buried with it was Wilmot. He was sliced practically in half and his top part protruded out from the depressed, broken stone and metal like a sculpture in flesh. The look of surprise on his greasy, bloated, lecherous face almost made him seem still alive. His bottom half still sat on the remains of a wooden chair and his legs remained casually crossed. What appeared to be an old copy of the Prophet slid off the knees and down to the floor to join the remains of Wilmot's broken wand.

Harry felt nothing for this man. He felt neither regret nor elation as he looked up and down the corridor. There was nobody else in sight and although Harry listened intently, he could hear nothing. If the corridors were cut through solid rock then it seemed likely the sound of the explosion would be no more than a dull tremor elsewhere. Hopefully it would not arouse much curiosity.

MISSING STUDENTS LATEST! WAS McGONAGALL NEGLIGENT? whooped the headline from the floor, The tight curls and jeweled spectacles of the woman smirking in the accompanying photograph told Harry all he needed to know. This would never have happened when our beloved Dumbledore was in charge says Rita Skeeter. Harry snorted, stepped on her face, then thrust his hand into Wilmot's bloody pocket and retrieved his watch. It seemed to be intact, still ticking.

"That was my birthday present, you bastard!" he snarled and turned away.

There was only one other cell door and Harry went to it.

Now that he knew the cell doors were not as formidable as he had first thought he used the less destructive Bombarda spell combined with Carpe Retractum to pull this door outwards. Rolf was still bound with ropes sat on the floor with his back to the far wall, his eyes blinking in surprise at the sudden light that flooded into his cell.

"Luna? What's happened to Luna?" said Rolf.

"Disapparated with Feya," said Harry as he cut away Rolf's bindings and gave him the water flagon.

He took the other wand out of the bag and handed it to Rolf. "Not sure who's this is..."

"It's Luna's..." said Rolf, giving it a quick swish.

"Then I'm afraid Lestraithe has yours," said Harry.

"So I've got two reasons for kicking her arse next time I see her as well as that other fat--" Rolf stopped what he was about to say. He was looking along the corridor and his eyes widened as he saw the remains of Wilmot in the wall. He did not feel so flippant after that but neither was he too troubled.

They checked the bronze gate but it was magically sealed. If it was the same as the one in the Manse courtyard above it would take some hours to break down its wards.

"Where did they actually go?" he asked, "Luna and Feya I mean?"

"Don't know," said Harry. "Where do you reckon?"

Rolf thought for a few seconds. "I think the banquet hall. Luna seemed reasonably sure it would remain formed and be in one place. From there she could find time to recover and then... I don't know. Who can predict what Luna will do?"

"We have to help the others," said Harry. "We have to get them out of the maze and fast but which is the best way and do we bring them here or go back to the banquet hall? Eventually we have to come back here or it's all for nothing."

"If we take too long then when we come back here they will be waiting for us," said Rolf. "A Death Eater might come this way any minute but even at best I think we only have hours. They will come to relieve Wilmot on guard duty."

"They said something earlier about patrolling - I wonder how often they patrol to check the maze exit?" said Harry. "Feya can apparate directly to here now she knows where it is but the maze is too risky for her. Anyway, she would not know where the others were."

"We have to use a patronus again. We have to walk all the way to where the others are then hover them out." Rolf's voice made it clear he did not relish the journey. Likely they would succumb to curses before they reached their friends.

"Your patronus was pretty good," said Harry, hoping that Rolf could explain how it was made without a wand.

"Not mine. Couldn't have been. It could only have been my grandfather's..." Rolf looked downwards. He had a pained expression on his face. Harry already knew how close Rolf had been to Newt Scamander.

"How, Rolf?" said Harry gently, putting his hand on Rolf's shoulder.

Rolf remained silent.

"Unless..." Now Harry was thinking about the patronus with a clear mind for the first time. An idea occurred to him. "Dumbledore? Is it possible? Can a portrait communicate with... I mean the real Dumbledore... and your grandfather..."

Rolf shook his head resignedly. "It's madness. It's just not possible."

"But it happened. Something happened. How else could it have known to reach here instead of going back to the banquet? I don't understand how that patronus could lead us here."

"Come on," said Rolf. "We have to get moving. We should bombard ourselves with shields before we start, cast a patronus then run as fast as we can,"

"I wish I had my Firebolt," said Harry, "but we left your bags in the maze."

There was a faint sound of a distant door opening. Harry and Rolf froze and stared at one another for barely a second then ran to the one door that they had not yet seen open - the solid bronze gate that presumably led further into the Manse shelter. They stood either side of this gate, wands raised. The metal-toed scrape of the approaching footsteps told them who it would be.

The gate opened but neither Harry nor Rolf were quite prepared for the great dark dragon-like head that emerged. Indoors, the almost full-grown thestral seemed very large. Rolf was half behind the opened door. Harry crouched down to avoid Rolf's expected curse and pointed at him. Rolf understood. As Farindon came out behind the creature, Rolf pointed Luna's wand and said very quietly but firmly, "Stupefy."

Intent and attitude has more effect when casting spells than how loudly one shouts and Farindon crumpled instantly. There was nobody else coming up behind so Rolf dragged the Death Eater to wedge the door open and took the wand he had just won with some satisfaction. He was looking forward to recovering his own wand from Lestraithe but this would do for now and a mastered wand would work better for him than Luna's borrowed one.

Harry patted the thestral's neck and said softly, "I expect you'd like to be free of this awful place." The thestral licked at the little trace of blood on Harry's throat where Luna had clawed and scratched him. It appeared better fed and cared for than the youngster they had seen in the banquet hall stable but it was always hard to tell how happy a thestral was, even in its natural habitat. Harry could not help thinking it was sad for them to spend their lives trapped underground.

Harry and Rolf put shield charms and other protections on each other then both swung on to the thestral's back with Harry hanging tightly to its mane and Rolf behind him. Harry leaned forward and spoke hesitantly to the creature. "Erm... we want to get to our friends in the maze and take them to the erm... banquet hall - just for starters anyway."

The thestral listened intently and seemed to understand. The graceful creature trotted nimbly forward through the open doorways, through the maze entrance then opened up its leathery wings. There was no room for their twelve foot wingspan to extend fully and freely but somehow the beast proceeded, flying by magic, brushing the walls frequently, skipping a foot or two above the stone floor and occasionally scraping it with a hoof. There was no hesitation, no doubt in its movements. Harry and Rolf could feel the wind tunnelling past them and both hung on tight as they pinballed round the sharp corners. Within minutes they were there.

As he slid to the ground, Harry saw Ginny lying curled up on her side near the others. Like them, her eyes were closed, there was no sound or sign of movement; Harry had not expected any but it was painful for him to see her looking so vulnerable - waiting to die. He knew there was no time to waste. Checking who was alive and using counter-spells would be as difficult as resuscitating a man still drowning. They used the Mobilicorpus spell to levitate the bodies, seized Hermione's and Rolf's bags, searched quickly for dropped wands and were back on the thestral's back and flying within only two minutes. By then their own shields were already beginning to weaken.

It was a strange, surreal parade that hurtled along those drab corridors which previously had taken them so long to traverse on foot. The thestral, filling the space with its powerfully beating wings was followed by a ghostly train of bodies bobbing and weaving like trolled corks and queerly illuminated by the odd, misaligned and misplaced light arrangements that flashed past them irregularly in passages and side corridors.

The journey was over as quickly as a cheap fairground ride; Rolf barely had time to start worrying how they would get past the steel door before they turned the last nerve-racking corner. Harry pulled out his wand in readiness and gripped it as tightly as he did the thestral's mane.

But there she was: Luna; swaying a little yes, but it was Luna standing in the open doorway. She waved cheerily then sank back weakly to one side as the unearthly creature swept by with its spooky entourage into the banquet hall. Rolf was down to help her almost before the thestral had stopped. Wandless, she had done the only thing she could on returning to the banquet hall: eat a little, use a potion to gain a few minutes sleep, then wait, hope, and trust at the newly-opened door.

Both Professor Bingley and Neville were close to death and for a while as both Harry and Rolf struggled to remove the curses that bound their minds and disabled their bodies, Harry was as badly frightened for them as at any time since they entered the valley. Scarcely a breath escaped the lips on their ashen faces. There were moments when Harry thought they had lost either one or the other. In those moments, tired as he was from strain and lack of sleep, he vividly saw himself in a waking dream, trying to explain to Neville's gran or to Professor Bingley's family why their loved ones were not coming home. Over and over these images tormented him and only faded when he could see that both the afflicted were starting to recover at least to where they could convalesce in an armchair and sip tea - though they hardly spoke. Even magic could not instantly restore their minds and bodies from the debilitating effects of so many curses for so long. It would take time. Now Harry was forced to coldly blank them out of his mind while he helped the others.

Luna insisted she was fine though still weak and Feya too seemed improved enough to stand. Harry tried to keep an eye on them both though he was exhausted himself from the trauma of his own experiences.

Ginny, Ron, and Hermione had been immobilized by a charm so were safe thanks to Neville's timely action in the maze - as was Malfoy. While in that enchanted state they could not get any worse and their treatment was not so urgent.

With Harry's help, Ginny seemed to recover quickly on the outside but she remained very quiet and Harry could not tell how she was feeling. He desperately wanted to reassure her, comfort her, but he felt compelled to continue clearing curses from the others first. He kept looking at Ginny and she looked back with a sad smile and he hoped she understood - that she could see his concern for her even if he was too busy to sit with her. The situation seemed to graphically express the pain and unfairness of the repeated separations which had blighted their love. He knew their relationship had done her a great injustice - a burden that she had had to carry stoically too often - and he could never accept that he was not partly responsible.

Rolf cast counter-curses on Ron and seeing he was responding well he then turned to Hermione. Ron too wanted to stay with her but Rolf shooed him away for a few minutes while he helped her. Ron was very fuzzy in the head at first but was fighting back especially when he saw the banquet table extending itself. It was not really physical hunger that drew him but the normalizing effect of being able to sit before the log fire and sip a big mug of tea with the others there. Perhaps there was some comfort in sharing the same burnt-out empty feelings, the same silence, but the contrast with their bawdy singing and joking only a day or two before gave a distinct sense of having a collective hangover.

The hall reformed itself to look as medieval as when they had first arrived. The thestral seemed to be pining to fly up the shaft to the sky and had to be restrained. Now they were certain that the sky and shaft were unreal, Rolf threw a cloak over the head of the thestral to calm it down.

"Where'd the thestral come from Harry?" said Ron, speaking for the first time from his armchair. He sounded rather groggy and only mildly curious. He seemed more concerned about Hermione who was taking rather longer than expected to recover.

"Long story... Tell you in a few minutes..." muttered Harry.

Harry looked at Feya next and cast some additional healing charms with the elder wand. She tried to protest when he gave her a drink of water, wiped some dirt from her face with a damp cloth and helped to freshen her up with a bit of fussing. House-elves are definitely not used to being waited upon by anyone, let alone a wizard.

"Feya, who told you to come back here? Who ordered you?" said Harry.

"Feya told me. Feya wished to help Miss Luna get to safety," said Feya with a weak smile. "Nobody ordered me to."

Harry laughed grimly and looked at Rolf. "After all our clever scheming, Feya just acted on her own initiative without any orders."

"House-elves are not just stupid machines, Harry - they're people," scowled Hermione weakly from the carpet where she lay being cleansed of one last stubborn curse by Rolf.

"Nice to see you're getting back to normal, Hermione," grinned Harry. He slowly raised the damp cloth then threw it at her but he made sure she saw it coming and Hermione transformed it into harmless confetti with one flick of her wand.

"So, ready to resume the fight I see," said Harry, anxious to get moving. "Who else?"

"Bloody hell, Harry! You got through! You mean you got through the maze? That's brilliant!" said Ron rising from his armchair like Fawkes from the ashes, spilling his tea and heading towards Hermione.

Ron's outcry animated the others who looked up as if from a daze.

"Harry?" said Ginny. "What happened? How'd you get through?"

"Rolf, Luna, Feya and myself," said Harry. "Don't ask me how but we followed a patronus and got through."

"You can't send a patronus if you don't know where or who to send it to, Harry," said Hermione, as Ron helped her up.

"I know. I know that, Hermione. We don't understand it ourselves," said Harry patiently. This paradox had been nagging him on and off for some time but he did not want to talk about or defend his own suspicions right now.

For the next half an hour he explained to everyone the situation at the other end of the maze and briefly what had happened. It was agreed that despite many of them still feeling weak and tired, they should all gain a foothold there quickly, hopefully before the Death Eaters realized what had happened, so some element of surprise might be retained. Neville and Bingley would return with them but they would not be ready to fight - they needed a few more hours rest. Draco they would keep immobilized. It seemed a convenient way to keep him out of trouble but they still had to take him along.

Luna reluctantly told the thestral to return to its stable and then the unprepared, sorry-looking team, wands in hand, all disapparated with Feya to the far exit from the maze. They were trusting fate but there was no reason to remain in the banquet hall. They knew now that Lestraithe had come through with the inferius so the fiendfyre was impassable both for them and for Kingsley and his Aurors. The only way was forward - forward to whatever awaited them.



Chapter 29: Causing a Stink
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When the weak and weary travellers apparated within the wood-panelled room at the maze's far exit they had ready at least six wands and as many curses as well as a plan of retreat. However, neither force nor flight were necessary; the chamber was as desolate as when Harry and Rolf had departed it two hours before. The pair of them alone went cautiously forward to investigate and found Farindon's and Wilmot's bodies just as they had left them with no sign of a visitation from the enemy to the area. The same thestral that had flown them to safety earlier was standing near Wilmot's remains down the corridor to their right. Blood on its fangs indicated it had been feeding. The creature flexed its wings hopefully when it sighted them.

"You'd think they'd be watching the maze more closely," hissed Harry between his teeth and trying not to look at the sickening gore trapped in the wall, "Death Eaters I mean."

"Well, if these two were the only ones patrolling, Lestraithe thinks they're both here anyway," suggested Rolf. "She thinks you and I are safely locked up and our friends dying in the maze."

"Even so, don't you think the place feels kind of... empty?" said Harry.

"This isn't the main access is it though? How often would anyone..." Rolf paused. "You know it occurs to me perhaps Voldemort intended to bring recruits in and leave them in the void while he went straight to his shelter. How else would they get past the fiendfyre? So we might be the first people ever to come this way!"

"Yes, now he's dead all his plans have--"

"You're sure about that?" cut in Rolf anxiously.

"Oh don't start that again," said Harry, "- he's dead. They've probably got someone juiced up to look like him or Lestraithe in drag or something. All I'm worried about is how many Death Eaters there are."

"Hermione didn't think--"

"Yes but Professor Bingley thinks there might be hundreds," said Harry, rather sharply. "Which reminds me..."

Harry thought for a few seconds. "Way back at Hogwarts she said something... It was just before we were going to floo to your mum's place, me and Luna... I'd like to talk to Professor Bingley; see what she thinks..."

"She's in a bad way though, Harry," said Rolf.

"I know - I mean when she's recovered a bit."

They were stood looking with curiosity past the bronze gate which was wedged open by Farindon's stupefied body still crumpled against it in a twisted heap.

"He'll have a few aches and pains when he comes out of it," said Rolf, "but I suppose he's better off than the other one."

They both looked to their right at the mess in the wall that had been Wilmot.

"Can we cover him?" said Harry,"I don't want Ginny and the others to have to see that."

"I'll see to it," said Rolf and went over to cast a disillusionment charm while Harry resumed looking through the gateway.

There was little to see beyond the bronze gate. It was a short dark passage - unlit apart from light spilling in at either end. It was just another boring stone corridor that turned abruptly left ten paces or so ahead but at least Harry could see the edge of more wood panelling round the bend to relieve the monotony of the stone. On the right - opposite that turning - was a large rough wooden door in the corner which reminded Harry of the cursed thestral's stable door back in the banquet hall.

"They really need to get themselves a good architect," said Harry to Rolf as he heard him returning to his side. "Look, Rolf, see that door? I'm wondering if it's where they keep their thestrals."

Rolf looked though the gateway and nodded. "But why did Farindon take so long to return with one then?"

"You don't suppose..."

Rolf looked at Harry closely and could see the grim temper rising in his expression. "You mean you think he..."

"He was a right git - cowardly bastard! Here - have another pain for when you wake up," said Harry in a low voice but matching Farindon's in harshness. He kicked out at the figure lying at his feet but he could not bring himself to put his anger into the blow and it was little more than a token nudge on one leg.

"It's obvious isn't it?" growled Harry. "He intended to wait long enough so Ginny'd be dead. He never intended to go all the way into the maze. He was just going to go back to Lestraithe later and say they were all dead."

The thestral fluttered in mild alarm at the slight commotion and Harry went to calm it. "Rolf, if we hide the thestral then Lestraithe might think we escaped on it and not come back - might take the heat off us, stop them searching for us around here? The last thing we want is to cause a major alert."

"She might - but she might not think of it at all. I'd rather it be safe back in its stable."

"Let's check it out then."

"You've not been on many expeditions have you Harry?" smiled Rolf. "We should first report back to the others."

They went back into the panelled room to find several friendly wands pointing at them and Professor Bingley slouched down against a wall with Luna watching over her. Neville did not look much better than Bingley and was stood leaning against the wall nearby.

"Anyone about?" asked Ron.

"No, the coast is clear but we need to get moving," said Harry. He explained briefly what they had seen which was not much. "How's the professor?"

"Not good," said Hermione. "It's time I think. Both Neville and the professor need sleep. The curses are yielding slowly but it takes time."

"But we can't spare the time, Hermione," said Harry. "What do we do? We can't stay here; fifty Death Eaters might come through the door any second."

"Hermione's right though," said Rolf. "They might as well be asleep - they can't fight like this anyway--"

"I'm always ready..." said Neville weakly. "I'm still here you know."

"We know, Neville," said Luna, patting his hand as if he were a child, "but we want you strong."

"I still have my sleep potion from before," said Rolf pulling out a vial from his bag on the floor.

"It's alright, Rolf," said Luna, dipping into her dotty bag. "I have one here."

"Give them each half - that's good for three or four hours on a human," said Hermione.

"Feya," said Rolf, "Unless I or... No wait. I'm reversing my earlier order. Now you still take orders from Luna or myself but if any of our friends ask for help then you help them too, understand?"

"Yes, Master Rolf. Feya is happy to help friends," smiled the elf.

Rolf watched as Ron laid down a couple of sleeping bags while Luna administered the sleep potion.

"Now, Feya, I want you to stay with Professor Bingley and Neville," said Rolf. "Be ready to apparate them back to the banquet hall if they are threatened - and anyone else who needs you. Use your judgement freely."

"Yes, Master Rolf," said Feya, then rather timidly, "You wish Feya to be a free elf - like Mikey was at Hogwarts?"

"Well I wasn't thinking that," said Rolf thoughtfully, "but you've certainly earned it."

"House-elves shouldn't have to earn the right to freedom," snapped Hermione.

"Feya does not wish to be free elf," wailed Feya. "Feya is proud to belong to House of Scamander."

"House-elves are not a commodity to belong to anyone," said Hermione. "I don't think--"

"Guys - this is not the time nor place to discuss elf rights!" broke in Harry. "Listen everyone, Rolf and I are going to explore a bit further. We won't be more than..." Harry looked at Rolf.

"Twenty minutes," said Rolf.

"Rolf, can you get a tent peg or something to wedge the bronze gate open? If it's like the other one it took the professor ages to break its wards and we don't want to be trapped either side." said Harry. "Ron, can you come with us? There's something I want you to hide back here."

When he showed Ron the stupefied Death Eater, Harry said, "Can you hide him somewhere? In case Lestraithe or someone comes round. I don't want to use disillusionment or she'd still be suspicious if they stumble into him somewhere."

"You mean the maze?" said Ron. "There's nowhere else is there, Harry?"

"Well, yeah, I guess," said Harry. "Immobilize him first."

"I'll just stick him round the first couple of corners of the maze. Nobody in their right mind would go in there."

"Immbolize him though!" said Harry.

"Yeah, yeah," said Ron. "Can't have poor 'icky Death Eaters suffering from maze curses can we Harry?"

"Not sure what the point is though, Harry," said Rolf. "Lestraithe will find her prisoners escaped..."

"Don't know myself really. It just seems better to confuse the enemy so she's more likely to wonder if we've gone to save Ginny from Farindon or something. What I mean is, if she's sure we're still here they'll never give up searching for us but if there's doubt in her mind she might eventually conclude we've gone."

"Let's hope we can keep out of sight for a while, then," said Rolf.

After Ron had hovered the body away, Rolf wedged the bronze gate and he and Harry stepped cautiously forward to the far door on the right that they had spotted earlier. At the corner they heard faint sounds of voices and movement from the left turning coming through another door. It was hidden in darkness but the sounds and the dim light spilling out indicated it had been left slightly ajar. Harry and Rolf looked at one another then silently went to investigate.

Harry used his invisibility cloak over himself and Rolf and they eased the door slowly open another inch or two. They could see a medium-sized hall, partly furnished with soft seating and a fireplace for comfort and various doors leading off it. It reminded Harry of a larger version of the Gryffindor common room or perhaps a reception hall - but rather plain. The walls were wood-panelled and there were some attractive beams supporting the ceiling but there was no decoration, no ornaments or paintings. In addition of course, it was windowless which made the space seem even more odd compared to its equivalent in any normal big house.

The floorboards had been polished at one time - still were in the corners - but worn and dull where people passed through giving an impression that luxury and maintenance was not a priority. The only carpeting was near the hearth. Wide hardwood steps led up to a slightly higher level out of sight through a large doorway. There were a few people coming and going - just one or two at a time but over the next few minutes it was clear that it was a busy enough area to make crossing through it promise to be very difficult for the travellers. A door opposite opened briefly and a house-elf came out with a tray of dishes. The steam and cooking smells that came with him suggested the room was a kitchen. The overall impression of the hall was one of a simple communal rest area and all the doors indicated it was often a hub of activity.

After pulling back and easing the door completely shut, Harry asked Rolf, "What do you think? It's not brightly lit all over - there are plenty of shadows. Do you think we could sneak across with this cloak?"

"Possibly. It's not being seen that worries me but being bumped into. There's some risk but if we wait until it's a bit quieter we might be alright."

"It's waiting I don't want to do though," said Harry. "I want to get away from this area as soon as we can."

"But it will be near impossible to get everybody through unless it's quieter."

A slight noise behind them made them glance back to see the thestral had followed them through the bronze gateway.

"We'd better return the thestral first then I think you and I should try to cross the hall to see what's on the other sides. What the hell we doing Rolf? I've no idea what--"

"Scouting is what we're doing, Harry. All we can do is gather information and hope."

Harry put the cloak away in his bag and they went to investigate the rough wooden door. As they pushed through it was rather dark just inside but the smell of straw and animal odours confirmed their suspicions. They rounded a half-height wood barricade on their left and could see several thestrals ranged along in common stalls. A slowly swinging lamp hanging from the rafters was the only light in this area but other lights beyond the first stalls suggested there were probably many rows of stalls. Rolf leaned around the first stall to look and let out a low whistle.

"Who are you and what do you want?"

Rolf and Harry turned rapidly to their right to see a large house-elf approaching. His lantern revealed him coming through a doorway they had not noticed before in the gloom.

"What are you doing here?" the elf demanded. He was very stocky with a large head covered in thick greying hair cropped unevenly. His limbs and torso were out of proportion like a clay figure made hurriedly out of many separate lumps. He wore a dark leather tunic of thestral skins. Harry had never seen such a large and bulky house-elf.

"Don't take that tone of voice with me elf," snapped Rolf. "The Dark Lady sent us to check if Farindon's back yet."

"I don't know you," persisted the elf. His left arm was raised slightly towards a series of bells strung along the wall near the ceiling and his fingers were ready to click.

"What - you think you know all the Death Eaters then?" said Rolf sharply.

"Why not?" the elf looked puzzled. "Show me your marks!"

"What?"

The elf looked more and more suspicious. "Your Dark Marks. You do have them don't you?" A sneer had crept into his voice.

"The Dark Lady brought us here in the last few days you stupid elf. Do you really suppose the Dark Lord is going to jump to attention and attend to us straight away! Unless perhaps you'd like to give him the order? The Dark Lord will send for us in his own good time." Rolf looked more and more angry. He knew how to deal with impudent house-elves.

"I am not an elf!" the elf said firmly and loudly but he sounded a little more defensive. "I am Crachflink."

"I can see you are more goblin than elf. I have more respect for goblins than elves but if you want to be treated like a goblin then show some respect in return. Stop wasting our time. Where is Farindon?"

The elf-goblin lowered his arm, partly mollified and muttered, "He's not returned. Been gone hours and I don't know when I'll ever see Fostar again."

The elf-goblin swung his lantern left and right looking around but without moving from his spot. He then added in a louder tone, "I don't get enough respect here. I am Crachflink I tell you. I have been here as long as the Dark Lady."

He continued to look around furtively, perhaps to see if there were any more intruders in his stables. He persisted in muttering - half to himself, "Yet so often forgotten here - taken for granted - sometimes meals, even drinks do not arrive as they should."

Rolf noticed a row of empty beer and wine bottles stood along a bench outside the doorway through which Crachflink had come.

"We have your thestral. Seems then it returned without Farindon," said Rolf. He turned to Harry who had remained silent, in awe at Rolf's quick thinking.

"John - go and fetch Master Crachflink's thestral," Rolf slipped his sleep potion out of his pocket and held it close so Harry could see it but the elf-goblin could not.

"While you're there, bring Master Crachflink a bottle or two of our best Merrygrimp's wine." He stared at Harry then down at the vial in his hand then added, "And hurry."

"Yes erm... Very well, erm... Dud.. Dudley..." stuttered Harry. "I'll just go and erm... fetch them then." Harry turned on his heel and went quickly out of the door. The thestral was right outside so Harry ushered it back through the doorway before he departed.

"Fostar! Are you well my lovely?" the elf-goblin drew the thestral to him by some sort of charm that was not magical. Only a thestral or another elf-goblin might have been drawn to the mis-sized, lumpy creature that was Crachflink.

"I see you treat your animals well, Master Crachflink. Their eyes are clear and their demeanour not over-timid nor frightened," said Rolf, hoping only to keep the elf-goblin's mind sweetened and off any suspicions that might still linger there.

"Yes indeed. Each one here I have raised from a new-born foal," said Crachflink. "You know something of these creatures?"

"I have some knowledge, yes," said Rolf, seeing Crachflink's interest. "Many regard them with suspicion but we know better eh?"

"Superstitious nonsense," said the elf-goblin as he led the thestral back to its stall. "They are unusual, yes - but there is nothing sinister about them... Fostar? Have you been feeding?"

"I gave her a little bloody meat," said Rolf hastily. "I did not then know how well it was cared for and thestrals are almost always ready to take a bite of food."

The elf-goblin was now warming to Rolf. "Well, we have this in common then. We consider the welfare of these wondrous creatures to be important."

He took up a shovel that had been leaning against the stall, waded into a deep pile of thestral muck and began to shovel it into a corner with relish. Harry came bursting back through the stable door at this moment, two full wine bottles tucked under his arms and something else in his hand. He backed up to push the door shut then brought the wine to Crachflink who gave a curt thankyou but was looking at Rolf. He had not quite accepted Harry as much as he did Rolf.

"I brought this too..." Harry faltered, unsure and uncomfortable. The elf-goblin disdainfully ignored the little custard pudding that Harry had also been persuaded to offer.

"Everybody loves pudding." croaked Harry almost inaudibly. Somehow it did not sound the same as when Luna had told him to say it. Crachflink turned to Rolf.

"Have a drink with me then if you will. I do not get much company here." Crachflink seemed to be only addressing Rolf in the invitation but Harry followed as the elf-goblin drew them back through the doorway into his own equally gloomy tiny quarters which were little more than a wood-partitioned section of the stables. A filthy straw bed stood in the left corner and its contents spilled out and littered the floor. The only decoration was a silvery ornament nailed to a wall post almost lost in shadow on their right.

Crachflink stepped up onto a stool to the left of the bed to put his lantern on a hook with a movement that indicated this was a regular routine. He placed the stool nearer his bed for Rolf and grudgingly found a bulging sack that stank suspicously of thestral droppings for Harry to sit on. Some grimy pottery cannikins, small crude bowl cups all cracked, were put on a short plank supported by a box that stood between the seats. The elf-goblin opened one of the bottles with a well-used corkscrew that had been lying on the floor then sat on the edge of his bed. Both Harry and Rolf reluctantly sat down but were thankful they did not have to sit on the sack mattress which was visibly crawling with bed lice. Harry did not know what to do with the custard so continued to cradle it in the crook of his arm.

While Crachflink was pouring out the wine Rolf was mouthing silently at Harry but Harry could not tell what he was saying so just nodded thoughtlessly. Rolf seemed encouraged by this and turned to his host.

"To thestrals - the best of magical creatures!" said Rolf, raising his drink. Harry balanced the custard in his lap while he joined the other two in the toast.

Rolf continued his cheery conversation with Crachflink while Harry kept mostly silent. He noticed Rolf was only touching his cup to his lips and so Harry did likewise. The elf-goblin however acted as if he had not had a drink for a month and quickly drained his vessel. He poured himself another without interest in the contents of Harry's and Rolf's cups. He was opening up more and more on the subject of thestrals and soon the pair were subjected to the entire history of every thestral in the extensive stables.

Rolf turned from the lamplight towards Harry and with his face in shadow again mouthed silently at Harry which Harry could read now his eyes had adjusted to the gloom.

"How ... much ... potion ... did ... you...?"

Harry stared at Rolf and pretended to rub his nose so as to shield his mouth from the chattering Crachflink. "I ... thought ... you..."

Rolf rolled his eyes in exasperation. "How?"

Harry tried to think quickly. There was dark shadow to his right so he coughed loudly and tipped his wine into the straw there. He raised the emptied bowl to his lips and with a flourish placed it loudly on the plank in front of Crachflink almost dropping the custard as he did so.

Crachflink ignored the hint and continued expounding on the subject of thestrals. Rolf took the opportunity to seize the half empty bottle and poured a little into Harry's cup. Crachflink was slightly distracted from his unheeded chatter by the diminishing bottle contents but continued with scarcely a slowdown.

"And some fools think they are strange - even ugly!" cried Crachflink. "Why, Fostar and Darklight are the most beautiful of creatures!"

"Which ones are they?" asked Rolf, standing up and walking back into the stable, still clutching the bottle. "Fostar I know..."

The elf-goblin trotted after his bottle leaving Harry behind but Crachflink had taken his cannikin with him. Harry had brought an additional sleep potion in his bag but was unsure if he should open the other bottle of wine. He decided he had to act. Harry put down the custard on Crachflink's edge of the plank and grabbed the corkscrew, wiping it resignedly on his jeans. He opened the second bottle, drank a substantial series of gulps directly from it both to steady his nerves and to make space then poured in the sleep potion. He had barely put down the bottle when he heard Crachflink's unstoppable voice returning, followed by the elf-goblin himself with Rolf.

They had not been reseated for long when an opportunity arose which Rolf was quick to seize. Crachflink was demonstrating the girth of the largest thestral he had known and had had to put down his pot for a few moments.

"And is that a medal I see?" said Rolf, breaking in on Crachflink's description of variations in thestral diet and how it affects their altitude in flight.

Crachflink's gaze followed that of Rolf's and his eyes brightened. "Yes - The Dark Lord himself presented it to me!"

He strutted over to the wall and while his back was turned, Rolf switched his pot with Crachflink's on the plank. Harry stared first at the pot then at Rolf. He wanted to shake his head but the elf-goblin had retrieved the wall ornament and was turning to come back.

"You have met the Dark Lord?" asked Rolf, trying to inject some admiration into his voice.

"Just the once. Just the once," said the elf-goblin thinking to impress with modesty. His eyes were unfocused. He was becoming intoxicated by the rare luxury of selfish conversation rather than the Merrygrimp's which of itself only tended to relax and make happy without clouding the mind. Crachflink beamed at the silvery ornament still pierced by its post nail, and brought it back to the lamplight where it glinted as if glad to be out of the shadow. It portrayed a fattened snake coiled into a complex knot. The lettering 'Trust' could be seen inscribed in the loops. Though from afar its staring eye glittered like diamond the decoration seemed close up to be cheap tin and glass. Harry considered Crachflink must be more elf than goblin if he thought it something more. Though he had felt little sympathy for the creature he did now feel the award to be only a cruel and mean humour.

"The Dark Lord bestowed this upon me long ago - before his resurrection - before his temporary disappearance at the hands of that filthy, devious, treacherous Potter." The elf-goblin seemed to be lost in memories, one moment displaying boastful pride and the next scathing annoyance. Harry wondered how old he was to be so absent-minded. Perhaps he had just spent too long alone with his thestrals.

"No, I received this honour long ago even before the first time the Dark Lord was absent from our midst." Crachflink seemed more withdrawn within himself and had even forgotten his drink.

"To the Dark Lord!" cried Rolf and rose to his feet. Harry was quick to follow.

Crachflink quickly came back to the present and lurched for his glass. "To the blessed Dark Lord! May he reign over us forever!" He drained his glass and grabbed for the second bottle. He quickly refilled his own and clumsily sloshed more into Rolf's and Harry's proffered cups which he had not noticed were still full.

"To the final end of all blood traitors, mudbloods and muggle filth!" Crachflink cried and drank the entire contents of his glass.

"Muggles!" cried Harry and Rolf together. They were looking at one another. Harry was trying to question something with his eyes. Crachflink was reaching for the bottle yet again but somehow never made it. His eyes glazed over and he slumped slowly down on his stool. His great head came forward and found the pudding waiting. His face pillowed in it for a while, snoozing in custard, while Harry and Rolf watched, reluctant to disturb the surreal picture frozen before them. Finally the elf-goblin slid gracelessly to the floor where he curled up and began to snore.

"How much did you put in, Rolf?" asked Harry.

"Half," said Rolf. "You?"

"The whole vial," said Harry. "How much can an elf-goblin take you reckon?"

"Who knows. Probably he'll be out for a couple of days but it could be a week. Elves should only take a fraction of what a human uses," Rolf eyed the spoiled custard. "You don't suppose Luna put any potion in there do you?"

"I think she did."

"Make that two weeks then."

"Mind telling me why we didn't just blast him?" asked Harry as they swung the elf-goblin onto his bed.

"He'd have apparated and raised the alarm before we got our wands out, Harry. Also, I thought we might find out something," said Rolf. He picked up the Merrygrimp wine bottles, their own glasses, and the custard remains and replaced them with a couple of Crachflink's own empty bottles from the bench outside. He inspected the tableau thoughtfully: bottles, pots, and sleeping elf-goblin with sick-like custard down his front. Nothing suspicious there.

"And did we find out anything?" said Harry. "Apart from thestrals, I mean."

"Only that he seemed surprised we thought he wouldn't know all the Death Eaters," said Rolf. "Doesn't sound like thousands to me, Harry if an isolated, lowly elf-goblin knows every one. Oh yes, and this place has definitely been here a very long while - way back in Voldemort's early days. But we already guessed that."

"We've wasted so much time though. I wish we'd never come in these stables now," said Harry.

"Harry - you didn't notice then?"

"Notice what?"

"There's another exit - at the back of the stalls. You didn't see it?" said Rolf. It still often surprised Rolf that most people's senses were not so keen as his own.

Harry strode off to see for himself. He started to wipe the damp seat of his jeans with his hands then changed his mind. He took out his wand. "Lumos."

"Where'd you think it leads?" said Harry. Rolf had come up behind him carrying the lantern from Crachflink's wall hook. He placed this carefully on a nearby barrel and went to the door.

"It's a wide door and look at these tracks where the thestrals go in and out." said Rolf. "My guess is an indoor exercise paddock."

He tried the door. "Locked."

"Get the lights, Harry and wands out. Have your cloak ready."

Rolf used the unlocking charm and the door swung slowly open.

"If that's a paddock then it's--"

"Softly, Harry," said Rolf, "we don't know who's about yet."

They were looking out into a huge open area with the night sky above them, woodland not far off, a gentle breeze blowing - and lights could be seen moving about here and there. Long walls, reminscent of garden walls, extended on each side as far they could see and each had at least one door.

"Definitely not real but this is perfect. Not just an exercise area for the thestrals - I'm sure all the Death Eaters use this for recreation," said Rolf. "This is somewhere we can hide out while we figure out what to do. I'd feel a lot safer if we were all amongst those trees than in those corridors - I feel trapped there."

He glanced sideways at Harry and saw his anxiety. "Take it easy. So long as we don't use a light and keep quiet nobody can hear us from over there and they would think nothing of seeing another couple of figures in the distance anyway. Go get the others. I'll look around."

Rolf stepped confidently forward heading for the trees and his words had reassured Harry. For the first time in a long while Harry felt all the tension releasing from him both mentally and physically. He looked at the beautiful expanse of stars and relaxed deeply, feeling the stiffness ease out of his body. He watched his friend move away as if he were strolling in a park.

Harry smiled as he put his wand away and looked forward to seeing Ginny. He turned in the darkness and slammed immediately into someone big who grabbed him firmly by both arms and held on. Harry jumped with shock and stifled a cry but he was gripped tightly, staring into the shadowy face of the tall figure in the stable doorway.

"Blimey Harry! Steady on mate!"

"Ron! You great bloomin' nitwit. You scared the hell out of me!" said Harry in a loud whisper.

"I was trying to slow you like - so as not to startle you into doing anything sudden," said Ron in an equally furtive voice.

"Good job you didn't want to actually startle me then isn't it!" snapped Harry. "What you doing here?"

"You mental or what, Harry?" said Ron. "You said twenty minutes not hours! What is this place anyway?"

"Room of Requirement thing like the banquet hall - where people can get some recreation - some fresh air," said Harry stiffly. He was rather miffed and his nerves were still jangling.

"You alright, mate?" said Ron.

"No I ain't bloody alright," said Harry as they walked back together. "I nearly wet myself and you ask if I'm alright."

"Sorry mate," said Ron with an unseen smile. He went to put his hand on Harry's shoulder but thought better of it. "Blimey Harry! You stink! Are you sure you didn't..."

"No I bloody well didn't!" said Harry. "I had to sit on a sackful of thestral droppings if you must know. If I ever..."

He stopped as they came into the light and he saw Ron grinning at him.

Harry grinned back ruefully. "Yeah, well. Had enough tension over the last few days ain't we?"

"Too right, mate."

They started walking back to rejoin the others.

"How's the professor and Nev?"

"Still sleeping," said Ron softly as he saw Harry's finger over his lips. They were just coming out of the stables and turning towards the bronze gate. "You do realize you've been gone over an hour?"

"Watch it here - there's Death Eaters just round that corner," whispered Harry. "Yes, well, while you lot have been relaxing and sleeping and taking it easy I've been--"

"Sitting on a sack of manure drinking in the atmosphere," said Ron. "Sure you don't want a clean up before you see Ginny?"

"Someone call?" said Ginny. She was stood in the bronze gateway, hands on hips. Harry had an uncanny sense of her being her mother. It was an odd feeling of wonderful familiarity in an alien world. It lasted for a few seconds then it faded as he remembered the danger they were all still in.

"Ginny - go further back," said Harry as he approached.

"He stinks," said Ron bluntly.

"It's not that but there's Death Eaters just round the bend and through a door," said Harry. "Come on - we can't relax."

"Alright - keep your shirt on," said Ginny then added, pinching her nose. "Actually maybe you should take it off and get it cleaned."

"It's not my shirt," said Harry.

"He wet himself, Gin," said Ron.

"Did not," said Harry. He pulled out his wand and used the scourgify charm on his jeans.

"Told you," said Ron.

"It was the sack I was sitting on," said Harry.

"Don't use a sack then Harry. You should go to the loo like everyone else does," grinned Ginny, her pendant flashing through a range of fiery colours.

Harry shook his head, laughing silently. It was good to see Ginny happy and hard not to be amused by the banter even though he knew the risks they faced at every moment.

When they got back to the others he explained the situation, warning them especially of the presence of the Death Eaters and the sleeping elf-goblin.

"Did my pudding work, Harry?" asked Luna sweetly. "Did he like it?"

"Er... yes, Luna, It definitely clinched it for us," said Harry. He looked at Rolf. "I would say it was enjoyable wouldn't you Rolf?"

"Definitely the most enjoyable custard pudding I've ever known," said Rolf.

They all headed slowly and quietly back to the recreation area. Two sleeping bags containing Professor Bingley and Neville hovered eerily after them accompanied by Feya.

As Harry led them silently through the bronze gateway, he realized he had left the stable door open. Harry froze. He was less concerned about the door than something small and shiny he could see slithering towards the turning opposite and about to disappear around it. With a sudden sick feeling in his stomach, Harry knew what it was and that all might be lost. Harry drew his wand but hesitated; a noisy curse would alert the enemy. Crachflink's silvery snake medallion had its own magical life and while it was marked 'Trust', its nature and use was the opposite. How many years had it spied on Crachflink, distrusting the goblin half of his nature and eager to report to its true master - or mistress.

Within the few moments of Harry's hesitation the balances of fate tilted softly back and forth upon the back of this tiny creature - but the world knew it not. Fostar stepped promptly from the stable door and with a swift movement a forehoof came quietly down and the snake was no more. The thestral turned and lowered its head to Harry and Harry could not help but lower his head to the animal in return. He was reminded of Buckbeak but he was more mindful of and grateful he had been kind to this thestral and that it understood him. The proud creature walked back into the stable and disappeared from view.






Chapter 30: Voldemort's Garden
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They were still deep within the lair of the enemy but there was a sense of near-normality and safety for the travellers for the first time since they had entered the Dark Manse. Black corridors, fiendfyre, the terrifying void, the shocking sacrifice, and the will-sapping maze - all were behind them: foul memories to brood over at some later time perhaps - but not today. They were now encamped in a tiny glade among trees friendly to them all, and although the many miles of countryside and the sky were but a magical enchantment, Rolf had discovered that the small forest itself was completely real and all the grasses, foliage, fruits, and creatures that inhabited it were authentic too.

The range of this flora and fauna seemed as wide as in the Tiantang Valley above them. The terrain boasted a fertile soil that swelled proudly on the farthest side to form a delightfully-contoured green hill up which the trees straggled and thinned as if resting from a pleasant exertion to look back at the view they had achieved. An agreeable stream bubbled and gurgled down this slope both to help irrigate the land and to entertain the eye and ear of the visitor. The complete panorama was a landscaped garden far better designed than the bland internal rooms and corridors of the Manse that the group had seen so far.

Rolf insisted that the open space itself had to be permanent and real too - a huge volume hollowed out by powerful magic within the rock. And just as the Tiantang Valley was a perfected microcosm of the world outside, so this woodland with its surrounding countryside was an enclosed miniature world in its own right. The group of friends had just enjoyed a day of sunshine and blue sky that felt like the real thing. Rolf explained that the luminous golden sun charm above replicated precisely where the real sun would be in this part of the world in mid-December. However, just like in the valley above it, the climate was pleasantly warm and magically controlled. Trees posed proudly, frocked in green, and while the shapely arms of some raised colourful blossoms on high, yet others stooped low to offer their abundant fruits. It was the embrace of spring, summer, and harvest-time together - without the cruel cold shoulder of winter.

In the evening, the expedition's campfire was lit - not to warm their bodies but to gratify their minds. Its radiance was given to roast spicy sausages and gooey marshmallows on white birch sticks with sweet chestnuts basking in the ruddy glow; to pan-bake scones and biscuits for buttering at which Feya excelled and rejoiced; and to keep a tea kettle happily piping its hospitality and its readiness. The air was filled with a wondrous mix of enticing cooking aromas that combined well with the natural background fragrances to delight and calm the senses.

The songs that this fellowship now sang were not to keep up their spirits but to express them - because the natural woodland experience, along with confidence in their secure alerts and protections - encouraged their hopes and lifted their hearts. They had been released from a kind of hell and the woods felt like paradise sprung up to reward and compensate them for overcoming their grievous sufferings.

Feya's heavenly singing enthralled them all again and while many of the jokes they shared were as earthy as before - they now seemed twice as hilarious. An attempt at charades developed into an improvised re-enactment of Voldemort's downfall including Neville's slaying of Nagini which he repeated here with a contrived hickory sword, cries of Dumbledore's Army! and with Ron as the unfortunate serpent. Horror was turned to humour; fear became fun; danger was now drama.

The complete day of rest they had indulged here saw all of them, including Professor Bingley and Neville, fully recovered from their ordeals and contemplating their next move over a dreamy, shimmering firehaze.

Professor Bingley was considering how best to despatch her patronus to inform Kingsley that they all were safe, well, and happy - at least for the time being. She hesitated because she did not want this news to leak out publicly and so inform Lestraithe.

"Which reminds me," said Hermione, "I was supposed to tell Professor Dumbledore when we were out of the maze." She rummaged in her bag and pulled out the portrait with theatrical anticipation.

"I trust then you met with success?" came the voice of the portrait seeing all the happy, contented faces.

"Professor Dumbledore! Yes, as you can see, we managed to get through - but..." Hermione looked to Harry to continue.

"We don't exactly know how, sir," said Harry. "We did have a theory but..."

"Ah, theories, Harry, can lead one into strange places - perhaps a Ravenclaw deduction would clear the way if I told you that little Thensa and Frida were born in the same year?" Dumbledore's portrait smiled at Luna and there was a humorous twinkle in his eyes.

Luna took several seconds to think this through then laughed loudly. "Why - you're an imposter!"

"Luna!" cried Hermione.

But the portrait smiled and answered. "Yes, I suppose in a way, I am."

"Would someone mind telling me what the--" spluttered Ron.

Hermione, determined not to be outdone by Luna, tried to explain, "Mrs. Thensa Preed - that is, Mrs. Scamander - would have known Frida Lestraithe at Hogwarts?" They were friends?"

"Not friends, Miss Granger," said Dumbledore's portrait. "Miss Lestraithe was in Slytherin while Miss Preed was in Hufflepuff. But they did know one another."

"So she, that is, Mrs. Preed, she could have sent her patronus to Lestraithe..." She tailed off. Hermione knew she was almost there but needed a little longer to work it out. Then she cried exultantly," then back from there to Rolf in the maze! Then it would know where to go to exit the maze."

Rolf butted in. "I see where you're going with this Professor Dumbledore, but you're wrong." The portrait picture raised an eyebrow but listened respectfully as Rolf continued, "My mother does not know the details of this expedition and her patronus is not a sparrowhawk. We are always so very proud of my mother's patronus. She delighted me with it even when I was a baby. It's the emblem inside all Preed books, atlases and map collections. Her patronus is a golden eagle."

"Not any more, Rolf," said Dumbledore's portrait quietly. "Rolf, when did you last see your mother cast a patronus?"

"Why, plenty of times! It was..." Rolf drew on a suppressed memory, "No - not since... not since my father died."

"All those years ago."

"She was upset for a long time - very sad."

"It was not sorrow that held back your mother's wand arm, Rolf," said the portrait. "You see, she was a little embarrassed - unnecessarily I might add. At least, that is my view."

"But why?"

The portrait sighed. "Ah, Rolf - your mother became a true Scamander on the day she heard the news of your father's demise. Her patronus became that of all Scamanders in living memory - a sparrowhawk."

"She... she never said," said Rolf, softly.

"I think perhaps, she felt she was not being loyal to her own mother - possibly too she was unsure how you would react - you were very young."

"But that was... I am very happy... and proud - if my mother's patronus is now a sparrowhawk."

"Sometimes when people set a trend in their life they stay with it out of habit," said the portrait of Dumbledore. "On your return you might care to release her from it?"

"I will, sir. I will." Rolf's thoughts were now far away.

"But how did she know?" asked Hermione, " - to send the patronus I mean?"

"Miss Lovegood? Would you like to explain?" said Dumbledore's portrait.

Luna looked at the portrait in surprise. "But I thought it was obvious - you told her, sir." She turned to Hermione.

"Hermione, when Professor McGonagall gave you the portrait, you weren't in the headmistress's office were you?"

"No, it was just after the Transfiguration class on the Wednesday."

"Didn't you think that strange," smiled Luna, "- that the professor would be carrying around a portrait from her office?"

"Not really - I... I never thought about it. I thought it was simply convenient for her to--"

"Miss Lovegood - you are more a tease even than I am," said the portrait of Dumbledore. "Please help Miss Granger out of her confusion."

"Tease? But no Professor, I was only curious," said Luna innocently. She turned to Hermione and the others. "This particular portrait here must have informed Mrs. Preed of our situation in the maze. The only way is if this painting is not the one from the headmistress's office but a different portrait of Professor Dumbledore which can then travel to the one at Hogwarts."

"Miss Lovegood is correct. My brother Aberforth relented after my death and considering all that had happened he felt I had perhaps paid in full for any... mistakes... in my early life. He asked the headmistress not long after the Battle if he might have a copy of the portrait to place beside that of Ariana. I... I keep her company now and will return there after this excursion. Aberforth loaned this portrait to the headmistress to give to you."

"So you invited Professor McGonagall to ask Mrs. Preed." said Harry.

"Almost, Harry. The headmistress called Mrs. Preed to her office urgently at my request and I myself explained to her the situation. You see, I anticipated that Frida Lestraithe would not have run away but instead have used the inferius to enter the Dark Manse shelter ahead of you. Naturally, Mrs. Preed cast her patronus covertly - invisibly - to seek out Miss Lestraithe and it then directed itself visibly to Rolf in the maze." Dumbledore's portrait paused then resumed.

"Forgive me, but I was not absolutely certain my plan would work and did not wish you to rely on it."

Professor Bingley now spoke, "Professor, thank you. Would you please inform the headmistress of our situation now and to pass that on to Kingsley Shacklebolt? The parents of these students - my own family too - must be very worried - but there is of course the matter of secrecy. This information must not get back to Lestraithe. I think you might emphasise this better than my using a patronus."

"P... Professor," said Neville, flushing a little and walking closer to the portrait. "Would it be possible... If Profess McGonagall could speak to Hannah Abbot as well - tell her... tell her... directly from me... I'm thinking of her. Tell her not to worry."

"I shall, Mr. Longbottom. You can be certain that I shall." replied the portrait quietly.

"She's my fiancee, you know," added Neville proudly.

"I do know, Mr. Longbottom," smiled the portrait of Dumbledore, "and congratulations to you both. Miss Abbott is already kept advised and reassured by the headmistress in this matter - not the details of course - and I believe she is currently at St. Mungo's explaining to your parents."

"She's what?" replied Neville in a hushed voice. He had, for the moment, the appearance of someone who had been on the receiving end of a stunning spell.

"Apparently they are doing quite well. They have a few memories now and a little understanding - and a lot of pride in what you are doing."

Neville could not speak. His mouth opened and closed like a goldfish at its expected feeding time. "They..."

"They know you, Neville. Only faintly - but they know you."

Tears streamed down Neville's cheeks and he blinked rapidly. He remained silent, staring at the portrait, unable to take in what had been said, unable to absorb it all at once.

"It's quite remarkable what has happened, "continued the portrait with a sideways glance in Harry's direction. "But I don't wish to give you a false impression, Mr. Longbottom. Some things are lost; few things recovered - but there is much improvement and greater comprehension."

"Th... thank you so much, P... Professor," faltered Neville. He turned away, shocked yet half-smiling, to sit with his back to the others for a while. Ginny went and sat quietly with him.

Bingley continued to explain their position to the portrait and their hope that Lestraithe might think them lost in the maze. It was agreed that the public should continue to think the expedition lost but without any details.

"Professor, there is one more thing," said Bingley. "My greatest fear is that... Well, we know that one single wizard, no matter how powerful, could not curse the whole world."

"I understand. That is my concern too. You must all take the greatest care and hope the situation has changed." The portrait took a deep breath. "I must leave you all now to speak to the headmistress but I will make myself available when I can."

With that he walked swiftly beyond the side of the frame and disappeared.

"Professor Bingley," said Harry, "you think there are a great many Death Eaters don't you?"

"Only the sustained effort of many cumulative curses would be effective to change an entire world I believe."

"But Crachflink was really convincing - I mean, he knows them all by sight - I'm sure he meant it."

"Perhaps there are more he doesn't know about?" said Bingley. "Anyway we must prepare for the worst - stay undercover and reconnoiter to find information about the curse."

"There could be many more Death Eaters prepared and ready to come down here later from outside." said Hermione.

"I don't think there can be that many still free or alive after--" Harry stopped then jumped to his feet. "What the hell happened to Draco!" He turned to Ron.

"Oh, I put him with Farindon in the maze," said Ron, casually licking hot jam and scone crumbs off his fingers.

"You what!" said Harry.

"Well, we can't carry him around for ever can we!" snapped Ron, "and we can't let him go. What was I supposed to do?"

"He's as safe and secure there as anywhere," said Hermione.

"I think it's a good idea," said Luna. "We could put all the Death Eaters in there one by one. It would be like a cupboard."

"What if there are a thousand Death Eaters?" grinned Rolf.

"It's a very big cupboard," smiled Luna.

Harry and Ginny took first watch that night and Neville insisted that he had had so much rest earlier and so much to think about he could not sleep so he stayed up too. Feya completed the watch of four while the others slept.

"Come on, Feya," said Neville in a loud whisper so Harry and Ginny could hear, "You and I can patrol and keep watch. I don't suppose they'll do much watching - except of each other."

Harry and Ginny huddled together and hovered a log onto the fire from time to time. It was not cold but the dancing and crackling flames gave life to the little clearing and a central focus.

Ginny had grown a little downhearted after their fun and games enacting parts of the Battle of Hogwarts. It had reminded her of the brother she had lost. Though she had tried not to show it, she could not hide her feelings from Harry.

"It's George I'm thinking of too, Harry," she said. "I keep hearing them both in my head - playing Quidditch out the back when we were little. I keep hearing them, Harry."

There was a long pause before Ginny continued.

"I miss Fred so badly now. I want so much to talk to him again."

"I know. I know," said Harry. "I agonized over whether... Well, if I'd given myself up to Voldemort earlier..."

"You know you couldn't have. You didn't even know you had to until you saw Professor Snape's memories."

"I know."

"It's worse for Ron you know."

Harry remained silent.

"He doesn't show it much."

"It's so bloody unfair," said Harry bitterly.

"George is different now."

"In what way?"

"When he talks to Ron I mean," said Ginny. "Not poking fun at him so much like they did. Like they're both suddenly older - closer together now they've both lost Fred."

"Ginny, if it's any consolation... No, of course it's not."

"What?"

"Fred's gone on - he'll be there waiting for us all one day. You'll be able to talk to him again - just like you're talking to me now."

"I know."

"No," said Harry very softly, "you believe but I... know"

Harry and Ginny hugged a little tighter and exchanged a kiss. Neville and Feya looked back and smiled. Feya talked to Neville about Mikey and Neville told her about Hannah and about his parents. They were both missing their loved ones yet more concerned as to how much their loved ones were worrying about them. The watch passed without incident.

Rolf and Luna took the next watch along with Ron and Hermione.

"Come on, Luna," yawned Rolf. He hated second watch. "We'll extend the protection boundaries a little and patrol them - be a nice walk."

"It's a pity they forgot to put in the moon though," said Luna.

"Oh they have - I saw it earlier today - but it won't rise again for about..." Rolf thought for a few seconds then fiddled with something in his hand, "about another hour."

"Oh and will it be--"

Rolf turned away from Luna for a few moments to face south east and used his wand. "Yes, Luna, it's almost a full moon."

"Let's sit on the hill then and watch it come up," said Luna. "It will be romantic. I've always wanted to..."

In the dark, Rolf touched the back of his hand to Luna's cheek and felt the heat of her blush. "It will be a lovers' moon I promise."

"Don't go too far," called Hermione with a smile.

"We'll be within sight of the campfire," said Rolf, then added more faintly as they walked away, "I assume that's what you meant."

It was indeed a full moon that silhouetted the branches of the trees that night as it rose like a queen before her admiring court. Rolf and Luna gazed silently at the beauty of it. Like so many couples inspired by its splendour before, they sat together sharing their hopes and dreams. Rolf of course promised he would summon it down as a gift for his Luna. But it was not a fanciful daydream but a real concern that eventually redirected Rolf's attention and broke their reveries with a shock.

"Lay down, Luna! Face down!" Rolf said in a strained whisper, pulling Luna down with him. Luna remained silent. She knew better than to ask untimely questions. There was a long pause and she knew Rolf was listening for something by the way his head tilted slightly.

"Searchers," he whispered. "Not patrollers - searchers. A few hundred paces away. They're looking for something or someone - almost certainly us."

Again he was silent for a short while.

"Luna, I want you to quietly slip back to camp and alert the others. Get them to move camp very slowly and quietly at least half a mile south east. Scourgify the campfire ashes and any obvious litter. Don't leave any seats or blankets or suchlike. No need for haste but keep the protections in place as you go. You may need to keep moving for a while. I'll join you soon."

He hesitated, then pressed something like a wrapped sickle coin clumsily into Luna's hand. She clutched it tightly as they briefly kissed then Luna left him without a word or a backward glance. She tried hard not to think of what she held but concentrated on the task in hand. The moon which had been so warm and friendly had risen above the trees and now looked small, cold, and remote - like her feelings which seemed to sink and shrink below the icy glare of some celestial eye.

There was very little discussion back at the camp and they were underway within minutes. Luna used the Four-Point spell but she found the moon was a useful guide to their direction. She led the way. It was not necessary for her to lead but she wanted to be slightly apart with her own thoughts. All were silent. Ginny move forward and put an arm around Luna's shoulder as they proceeded. She knew she did not need to say anything; it was obvious that Luna was worried about Rolf.

Luna raised her hand and opened it palm upward. The moonlight revealed only a small, tightly-folded piece of parchment but her heart told her what it must contain; its proposal, its promise, its portent. Ginny's extra squeeze of her shoulder told her that she had guessed it too.

It was almost an hour before they instinctively stopped in the deep shadow of densely-packed trees and tangled bushes and they cast their concealment charms. Yet they felt exposed and blind to the unknown and lit no lights. Rolf was their eyes and he was elsewhere. So they waited, not speaking, looking back along their route for him to come.

Even in the silence they did not hear the fluttering of his patronus but they saw its faint silvery-blue light and the sparrowhawk alighted on a low branch. Rolf's soft voice reassured but cautioned them.

"I'm on my way. Fifteen minutes. Four Death Eaters searching. Using Disillusionment to keep near-invisible. They have turned north-northeast so you're not in danger at the moment but stay alert."

The patronus faded to nothing. Bingley spoke.

"We're safe for now - Lumos."

They all stood around Bingley's wand looking at one another in its pale light. Ginny was gazing at Luna and caught her attention. Ginny smiled and raised her eyebrows slightly as a question then whispered, "There'll be another time."

"I think this time was fine - now it's over," Luna whispered back. "It was very memorable and dramatic don't you think?"

"What will you say when he gets back?"

"Why - yes, of course," smiled Luna.

She carefully opened the parchment in the pale blue glow of Bingley's wand. She examined the contents then carefully wrapped its secret away. She smiled as she looked up and saw all eyes were upon her; some understanding, some confused and curious.

"It's been a lovely, lovely night," she said as if that explained it. She began to twirl and to sing her elation. Her song was a clumsy innocent trill, a mere trah-lah-lah - but it rose through the trees to the moonlight. First to the left she turned and then to the right as she moved slowly through the trees making headway in one direction. She was watching the silvery-blue sparrowhawk coming towards them again through the trees.

Luna finally fell silent and ran forward, passing the ghostly bird to the man she knew would be following it and threw her arms around him.

"Is that a yes, then?" said Rolf, trying to stroke the straggles out of her hair and loving that he always failed.

"Yes," said Luna.

"Not quite what I'd planned but I wasn't sure if... I wanted you to know just in case..."

"I know," said Luna happily. She unwrapped the ring again and Rolf slipped it onto her finger. "It's beautiful... Where..."

"I transformed it from my moonstone ring - just slightly... made it more delicate. It occurred to me when we were talking about the full moon. I've had it for years. Best I could do at short notice. If it's not very good we can get a nicer one when we get back..."

"No - this is lovely," said Luna. "I never want to change it."

"Erm... Excuse us, but... er... Death Eaters? Out to kill us all?" said Ron from among the trees nearby.

"Shhh... Quiet! Ron!" said Ginny in a loud whisper. "Rolf's proposed. Don't spoil it!"

"He's what!" said Ron.

"Where have you been this last hour, Ron?" smirked Hermione, looking at Ginny.

"Is there someone else here, Luna?" smiled Rolf.

"No - not here on our moon," said Luna. "But perhaps we'd better fly down to Earth and see."

"Ah, nice of you to join us again, Rolf," said Ron as the couple returned to the others. What happened?"

"I asked Luna to marry me and she said yes," said Rolf, straight-faced but struggling to hide a big smile.

"No! What about the Death Eaters?" said Ron, rolling his eyes amidst the sound of hearty congratulations.

"I didn't fancy any of them," grinned Rolf` which released the tension with laughter all round and a dig in Ron's ribs from Hermione. Finally, Rolf continued, more seriously.

"Well, there are only four Death Eaters searching. Their woodcraft is not very good and their disillusionment only causes confusion among themselves. They're slow. They keep losing track of one another then shouting Where are you? which kind of defeats the object. Their search patterns are just random and wasteful so unless they fall over something like a boot or a bag we've overlooked then I don't think there's any chance of them finding us.

"We checked our campsite carefully before we left and even eliminated any magical traces," said Bingley.

"Yes, I came that way and double-checked myself," said Rolf. "A trained tracker would find signs but those Death Eaters are definitely not skilled at tracking. They would walk right over our old campsite in daylight and never know it was there."

"But they will persist now they know we are here," said Bingley. "Likely they will send more at daybreak."

"No, they don't know," said Rolf. "Lestraithe is just being careful. She's smart. She thinks we've apparated with Feya back to the safety of the banquet hall but... here's the good news..." Rolf paused for breath.

"How do you know this?" asked Bingley. "You heard them talking?"

"Yes, I disillusioned myself and crept up very close for quite a time. It was easy to see and hear where they were from the noise and moving foliage and--"

"News? What's the good news?" asked Ron eagerly.

"They have so few Death Eaters that Lestraithe doesn't want to risk a direct confrontation for the time being where we might have the advantage. She thinks we're most likely trapped in the banquet hall - can't go forward or back - so she's resigned to keeping us there for now."

"So why send only four Death Eaters blundering in the dark into the woods?" said Neville.

"They're what she thinks is a stealthy surveillance team - just checking for signs of us to be extra sure," smiled Rolf.

"She didn't know about your special qualities though, did she?" smiled Luna.

"Yes, and if we hadn't kept watch they might have come across the campsite while we were asleep. They were testing for wards and shields. Still are," said Rolf.

"So what do we do?" asked Bingley, "Keep moving?"

"Yes. For now. If they had fifty or a hundred spread out and searching systematically then it would be tricky but just four of them - we can easily avoid them and there's no doubt they'll give up soon enough." Rolf thought for a few moments then added, "At least until Crachflink wakes up."

"That should take days," grinned Harry. "Even then he has no special reason to mention us."

"Meanwhile, we can't make permanent camp," said Rolf. "I suggest we wait here for now. Anyone who feels sleepy might want to get a couple of hours or so but the rest of us should be ready to decamp at short notice. I'll keep checking their movements and report back."

"So wherever they move to - we just keep on the other side of the woods from them until they give up?" asked Neville.

"Essentially, yes - then we try a permanent camp again,"said Rolf. "But there's more..."

Everyone waited expectantly.

"Firstly, they mentioned... No, they were talking about... The Roots of the World," said Rolf then seeing everyone's expressions he added, "Yes, yes, I know, they're just an old witch's myth - but they were talking seriously about them just like they talk about Voldemort being resurrected - like they'd seen them. There is no doubt they believe in--"

"Can't be!" said Neville firmly. "My gran told me stories about the Roots when I was a little un'. They're fanciful stories."

Ron and Ginny were nodding their heads in agreement. Ginny spoke to everyone but particularly to explain to Harry and Hermione. "Everyone in the wizarding world knows those stories."

"So they're just fairytales but--" said Harry.

"No, they're not fairytales - they are completely fictitious - just fantasies," asserted Neville which caused Harry and Hermione to exchange a smile.

"So what are they then?" asked Harry. "The Roots of the World?"

"According to some old legends the visible world is not existence itself but only rooted in existence like a flowering plant is rooted in the earth," said Professor Bingley. "Deep down further than anyone has ever been there are supposed to be the roots to existence."

"So if they're further down than anyone has ever been then how does anyone know they are there then?" asked Harry.

"They are not actual roots - it's just a manner of speaking," said Bingley. "It's only a way that early magical communities visualized the background laws of the universe being manifest as visible things. It's like the quality of wateryness and then we have actual water you can touch and feel - or arithmetic: one and one is two but you can't see it until you have say, one apple and another apple."

"Oh, the Roots of the World are real," said Luna very positively. "Daddy taught me all about them too. It will be lovely if someone has seen them."

"The one giving the orders was named Trandell. He had to keep removing his disillusionment charm to round everyone up - tall man with thick dark hair. Bored expression. I think he was more or less in charge down here until Lestraithe showed up again," said Rolf. "He didn't sound too happy with her."

"Again?" asked Bingley.

"It agrees with what Crachflink was saying - she's been around a long time. She helped set up and organize this place long ago - the whole thing I mean - valley, Manse... and the curse. She was second only to Bellatrix Lestrange in Voldemort's eyes - but she was more undercover; his secret weapon if you like," said Rolf. "Personally I think she might always have been his private favourite. Bellatrix Lestrange was up front in the limelight - a fighter; Frida Lestraithe was in the background shadows - a thinker."

"So this is why they call her the 'Dark Lady'?" said Harry. "But where did Worley fit in? She was ordering Lestraithe about."

"Not sure. Trandell never mentioned Worley by name but I gather Lestraithe never trusted her and pretended to be just another Death Eater assigned to help her - so she could keep her eye on her so to speak," said Rolf.

"Not trust her!" exploded Ron. "She tortured Harry and Neville and... She was Death Eater through and through. I never met anyone so ruthless and cold. She was worse than Voldemort."

"Yes, but before that..." said Rolf. "Anyway, Trandell said something about Lestraithe knowing all about someone's plan - he could only have meant Worley because--"

"Plan? What plan?" exploded Harry. "She planned to use us to get into here and..."

"Yes, and then what?" said Bingley. "What actually did she--"

"Lestraithe used her," said Rolf.

"What!" cried Harry.

"Lestraithe mostly managed this place. She stayed here," said Rolf, "but she often went out on various missions that Voldemort would entrust to nobody else.

"So?" said Harry.

"Don't you see?" said Rolf. "Lestraithe was outside when Voldemort died in the Battle of Hogwarts. The only way in and out of this place is with Voldemort. She was locked out when he died."

"So... Worley..." began Hermione.

"I think Lestraithe and Worley were in contact, perhaps working together on something when Harry told Worley about the volcano..." said Rolf.

"Worley was shocked when I told her," said Harry.

"Yes, either she'd never heard of it or possibly thought its secrets had all been lost with the death of Voldemort and his senior lieutenants," said Bingley.

"Probably," said Rolf, "So she asked Lestraithe who probably told her enough about the near-impossibility of getting inside--"

"And I bet Worley would have a few ideas about that!" said Hermione. "She's an expert on wards and protective spells."

"Exactly!" said Rolf. "Lestraithe wanted to use Worley to help her get back inside the manse. Let her risk her neck--"

"Risk ours more likely - as guinea pigs!" said Harry.

"Right," said Rolf. "Lestraithe didn't care so long as Miss Brilliant Dark Defence Professor came up with some clever idea - and she did. Ironically, Lestraithe was one of the few who could perform it. I bet Worley came up with the idea of retrieving Voldemort's body from his tomb."

"Wow! Yes - Draco said Worley thought the inferius idea would work but it was a bit extreme. She wanted someone to test the polyjuice idea on first," said Harry. "Regularly little ideas lady our Professor Worley wasn't she? Hang on..."

"What is it, Harry?" asked Ginny. Harry was suddenly looking very thoughtful.

"I started this whole bloody thing didn't I?" said Harry. "Why is it always me? Why? If I had not had that damned memory. If I hadn't gone to Worley then she wouldn't have gone to Lestraithe and--"

"OK, let's all blame Harry," groaned Ron. "Come on, Harry. If it were not for you then the curse would continue to wreck the world--"

"We don't know that, Ron," said Hermione. "It might have stopped with Voldemort's death."

"But don't you see, Hermione?" said Harry. "If it stopped then Worley and Lestraithe were probably going to restart it... Do something... However the damned curse works. And I informed Worley who then gave Lestraithe ideas of how to get back in here to do it - to end the world."

There was a long, sombre silence.

"You did exactly the right things, Harry," said Luna. "You did everything you ought to have done. The result of that was never in your hands. The actual outcome was never your responsibility. It does not do to dwell on dreams of how it might have been."

"What did you say?" Harry looked startled.

"It does not do to dwell on--"

"--dreams," cut in Harry. "That's what he said. That's what Professor Dumbledore said to me long ago in my first year."

"About time you started to listen to him then, mate," said Ron.

~~~~~~~~~~~~


For Harry, the two days that followed felt like wasted days. He was anxious to begin exploring through the doors that could be seen in the walls surrounding the woodland garden to see where they led. The walls looked far too high to climb and anyway, it was generally agreed that the sky visible above the walls was not real and so impassable. But the doors beckoned and enticed yet had to remain uninvestigated for the time being. Until the Death Eaters gave up their search it was safer for the travellers to stay together and keep well hidden. Harry bit his lip and chafed. Most of the time he was not good company.

"I want this over with," said Harry several times a day. "I want everyone safe again."

"Harry, you feel too much personally responsible," soothed Hermione, "we're all here of our free will..."

"It's not just about you mate," scolded Ron. "You were just the messenger."

The Death Eaters actually gave up searching as light faded on the next day but Bingley insisted they wait one more day to see if any more Death Eaters came out to comb the woods. So it was well after dark on the second day that the expedition made their first sortie through the doors.

The enforced idleness during the day had inevitably led to long disputes and quarrels about who would go. Harry had the cloak but Neville and Ginny insisted on 'doing their share' and were not happy about Harry always taking the risks. Rolf was a trained scout and tracker - and an adult. Bingley was senior to them all in age and all-round magical experience and better able to analyse any curses or other magical effects they came across. Feya could apparate but not to anywhere she didn't know. Hermione thought she would be of use in solving unforeseen problems but could not give a good argument for being on a mere fact-finding mission. Luna just dearly wanted to see 'The Roots' and nobody could convince her either by reasoned debate or senseless scoffing that the Roots were just a fable - an allegory at best. The only thing they could agree on was to leave soon after dark - long before the moon rose - so as to give them maximum concealment for the longest time.

By nightfall there was partial and reluctant agreement by some that Ron and Neville using Harry's cloak should be accompanied by Rolf hidden by a disillusionment spell. They would take Luna's compact dotty bag containing anything they could think of they might possibly need to last them overnight.

"You think we'll be gone all night?" said Ron

"No, but always be prepared," said Rolf.

"Right then, late supper, tea flasks," said Ron with a grin, "better put breakfast in there too. What you got Feya?"

Somehow, action took over before anyone else could protest. Rolf threw in his compass and scalar after Rolf briefly explaining them to the other two. Both Neville and Ron laughed at the idea of using a compass indoors.

"Might as well take a few broomsticks and my dad's Ford Anglia," muttered Ron with a smirk.

"Good idea," said Rolf, thrusting three brooms into the bottomless bag.

"I was joking, Rolf," said Ron, " you do realize that?"

They crammed in a few more supplies then Ron turned expectantly to Harry.

"Fine," said Harry. "Take the cloak. I'll just... I'll just do nothing then."

"Harry, things are different now," chided Ginny as the three departed. "We're all in the same boat. You may have been the Chosen One before but that task is done - the task you were chosen for is done. Now everybody is involved."

"Sure, sure," said Harry "but after all these years I can't seem to stop." He wandered off a few trees away to gaze after Ron, Neville, and Rolf but could see nothing of course.

"He's just frustrated because he wants to be actively working off his guilt because he thinks he's endangered us all," said Hermione, "plus he hates to see anyone else taking risks that he feels he ought to be taking and he also feels it's his responsibility to deal with Voldemort so he has to investigate to make sure even though he knows he's dead. In addition he now feels he is the cause of the world coming to an end so he is personally duty-bound to fix it and this causes his anxiety and frustration."

"Whew!" breathed Ginny, softly.

"No, it's the Roots, I'm sure," said Luna, "They're calling him. I feel the same thing."

"Luna, there aren't any actual 'Roots'," said Hermione who was becoming more and more exasperated at Luna's persistence.

"Well, there must be or how could I feel them calling me?" retorted Luna.

"Well how come I don't feel them calling me then?" snapped Hermione.

"It must be the wrackspurts I should think. They cloud the mind you know," said Luna. "Yes, that's it. What other explanation could there be?"

Hermione first banged her head against a tree then pulled a copy of Discourse on Arithmancy and Runic synthesis in Medieval Europe out of her bag to help her relax. After five minutes she gave up trying to read. All she could think about was Ron.

~~~~~~~~~~~~


The three circled clockwise along the outer walls from the thestrals' stable entrance. The first door they encountered seemed too well-used to chance it. It was well lit outside by a couple of flickering wall torches. In the first hour they simply observed it. Several figures in ones and twos came out to stretch their legs and when they did so the sound and light spilling from inside suggested this accessed the main hallway that Harry and Rolf had seen before through the internal door opposite the stable. They decided this route was not an ideal risk unless they had no choice so they walked carefully along the garden walls to the next door. This was much further away and both Ron and Harry trusted to Rolf to find it in the dark but it took them longer than expected to reach it.

Although harder to find, it was good that it was lost in shadow as Rolf's disillusionment was not perfect in bright light. Now they could keep watch with little risk of being noticed. After thirty minutes of inactivity, Ron and Neville were anxious to try the door. Rolf was more used to waiting hours while stalking magical creatures but eventually he acceded to the impatience of the other two.

The door was troublesome to open and they were almost at the point of returning to fetch Professor Bingley when Ron finally opened it imitating Parseltongue more in desperation and annoyance than any serious intent.

"But doesn't that mean it's probably Voldemort's quarters you reckon?" whispered Neville as they gazed at the dark doorway before them.

"So it should be empty then," said Ron, tired of waiting and taking the first step through pulling Neville with him followed by Rolf.

Ron could see nothing in the blackness nor could he hear anything except Neville's soft tiptoed footsteps at his side. He decided a light would be no more risky than whispering so cautiously lit his wand - rather too close to Rolf's face.

Rolf cursed him softly and groped to close the door, his eyes dazzled. As his eyes adjusted he could see they were stood in a large common parlour with several side doors and Rolf sighed as he saw them already being somewhat carelessly and quickly opened, presumably by an invisible Ron.

"Empty bedrooms," said Ron as he slipped the cloak off himself and Neville.

"No wear. No stains. Nothing," said Rolf, finding new blankets and bedding in some of the cupboards. "Probably never been used. Nobody's ever lived here."

"Wait!" cautioned Rolf softly as he saw Ron already at the far door, "Ron, douse your light for Merlin's sake and put the cloak back on. Take no chances."

"Oh yeah, right," said Ron.

Twenty minutes of searching around revealed scores of similar living quarters connected by unlit corridors leading generally in the direction of the common room that Rolf and Harry had seen before. It had seemed a fruitless foray but Neville did suggest they move the team to camp in one or two of the living quarters.

"Safer in the woods to be honest," said Rolf quietly, looking up and down the dark, narrow hallways. "I'd feel trapped here."

"There's a way through here," Ron called softly. He had left Neville with the cloak and marched off down one of the corridors in the opposite direction. "There's something here. Looks promising really - and there's stairs here too - going upwards."

Several things seemed to happen within a few seconds. Ron yelled and fell twisting sideways brightly illuminated by the green shock of a killing curse that passed him so closely his shirt buttons glowed. Rolf had his hand over Neville's invisible mouth before he could call out and was pulling him forward silently towards the floating figure of Ron who was turning, rotating in mid-air like a pig on a spit, eyes staring in horror. Then he was gone, sucked up the stairs by some unseen, unheard curse.

Rolf shook Neville and keeping his hand over Neville's mouth as a warning to keep silent, whispered in his ear. "I'm going after him. In five minutes this place may be crawling with Death Eaters so I'll try to block the stairs to stall them. You have to get everyone through here before then. I don't know what Ron's found but we may never get another chance. Take a broom."

"B... but..." Neville began. Only dark silence was there to answer so Neville finished the sentence in his head... I'm useless on a broom.

Neville was shaking but moved as quickly and as quietly as he could back through the living quarters and sat astride one of the broomsticks. He strained to see his watch in the dark and wondered how long it would take. Then with a jolt he realized he had little idea where the others were. He had been relying on Rolf to lead them back. He guided his broom towards the treeline which he could barely see by starlight then cruised south along it. Faintly in the distance he could see the lit door they had scouted earlier forward and to his right. At least he knew they had passed that earlier so he continued by it, looking out for the thestral stable door.

Neville wondered whether to chance it and just turn into the trees. An ever-increasing sense of hopelessness enfolded him. It looked pitch black in the woods and the camp would be hidden by protective spells. He could not possibly find it. Could he risk a light to signal them? He would need a huge flare for them to see if they were miles away. He cursed himself for laughing at Rolf's insistence on packing all kinds of unlikely supplies.

The scalar! Rolf had said something about it marking their location. Neville fumbled it out of the bag and dropped it in the long grass. Come on, Neville! Seconds count! He looked at his watch and was astonished to see that only two and half minutes had elapsed since he came back out into the open. He fumbled around in the grasses and after discarding a slimy snail and something equally horrible that he could not identify, he grasped the scalar.

He gazed uselessly at the values on the scales. They meant nothing to him at all. He cursed himself for not paying attention to Rolf earlier. He looked wildly at the instrument, begging it to tell him what he needed to know. He had to accept he would never understand the numbers in time. His head was filled with faces instead - all of those relying on him: Luna, Ginny, Harry...

"Neville!" a voice whispered from somewhere. It was Harry. "What the hell you doing?"

"Harry!" croaked Neville thankfully but breathlessly. "They've got Ron. We've got to get the others quick. Do you know--"

"What happened!" demanded Harry.

"No time. Desperate. We've got to move. Rolf's gone after him," croaked Neville. "We only have minutes to get everybody through."

He was pushing past Harry into the unknown dark of the woods, stuffing broom and useless scalar back into the bag. Harry felt obliged to go with him; he knew the exact line. It was not far but Neville was not looking forward to telling Hermione the bad news and what hope could there be anyway once Lestraithe forced Ron to tell them everything.






Chapter 31: Dead Hero in the Storeroom
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Harry and Ginny had an arm around each other but not only for affection. They were clinging together under the invisibility cloak following a nervous and very visible Neville through the unused living quarters of what they were now calling the Dark Shelter. Behind them straggled the rest of the group obscured by disillusionment spells. They had quickly decided on this approach as the best way to make rapid progress with low risk and without them losing track of each other. It was not practical to try to follow an invisible leader silently so Neville remained unconcealed. He, of course took all the risk on himself but at least he had the comfort of knowing several friendly wands were drawn ready behind him. Neville regretted having never succeeded in casting a fully-formed patronus which they could have followed. He had wasted only a few seconds on one last desperate attempt in the woods before resigning himself to be a vulnerable human guide.

They had made good time reaching the Shelter on broomsticks with Bingley using the groundflight spell she had employed back in the mountain pass. Neville could scarcely believe that less than seven minutes had elapsed since Ron's capture. Now he was looking along to those same stairs up which Ron had disappeared and trusting that Rolf had blocked them somehow. There were not yet any Death Eaters in the area which suggested he had.

"This way," whispered Neville unnecessarily as he walked slowly and cautiously along the passage.

With sinking heart, Neville wondered if Rolf had really known what he was doing. There was nothing to prevent Death Eaters coming around from the common room or from outside - it was just a matter of time. Would they not be trapped? But when he reached the stairs he saw a possible way forward - perhaps to safety. He saw what Ron must have noticed just before he was taken.

The corridor was not a dead end but passed the stairs a few paces to a dark unlit recess shadowing a large double door. It was not the doors so much as the large internal skylight above them that drew Neville's attention. It appeared to be closed until one was very near. The glass itself was obscured with years of dirt but looking up there was a tiny gap through which light faintly leaked around the edge of the frame. Everything looked as dusty and unused as the rest of the living quarters and the small, grimy sign on the door was unreadable in the dark.

As Neville rubbed at the sign with the cuff of his jacket he heard Bingley's low incantations testing the doors.

"Ascendio," whispered Harry. He had slipped out from under the cloak and soon had the internal window open above the door while Neville still struggled to read the sign.

A series of voices uttering "Ascendio" passed upwards close by Neville's ear and he sensed everyone hurriedly following Harry through the aperture. Neville pointed his wand at the stubborn dirt on the sign.

"Here's..." Hermione crouched down. "It's Ron's wand! I'm sure it is... Willow... it's long... It must be his!"

There was a distant crash of a door being thrown open far back down the winding corridors near the common room, alerting Bingley to the urgency of their situation.

"Come on, Hermione. Neville! Leave it." whispered Bingley as she flew up past them.

Hermione followed her immediately but Neville hung back.

"Scourgify!" whispered Neville.

"Leave it!" insisted Bingley from above. "Forget the sign!"

"Not the sign," gasped Neville as he was abruptly tugged up by a summoning charm from above, "...our finger marks in the dust."

Bingley, still invisible, stared at Neville's face in the gloom as he scrambled through the window.

"It's alright," said Neville, dropping clumsily to the ground on the other side of the doors where Bingley steadied him with a near-invisible hand. "I think anyway. They'll be less likely to notice it's all clean now. It's better than all those marks..."

"Not Lestraithe..." said Bingley. "She's shrewd. She'll spot it's too clean - perhaps not straight away..."

Neville sensed the professor had ascended to the window again then heard her chanting softly above him through the still open skylight. Presently the window gently closed and locked itself and he felt her alight at his side again.

"You've re-dusted?" asked an incredulous Neville, stifling a sneeze in the falling cloud of particles. He stared at the ghostly space of Bingley's form faintly outlined by the floating dust. "You've conjured more dirt?"

"I never dreamt I would ever use that ridiculous spell," said Bingley, smiling grimly to herself with surprise. "I never did."

They listened. The sound of voices and footsteps was approaching. Flickering lights were beginning to gleam through the dirty window above the doors.

"Time to back away gracefully methinks," whispered Bingley. "Lead on Neville."

"I've not been in here. I don't know where to..."

"Anywhere!" whispered Bingley, "Just so we've someone to follow - keep us together! Go!"

"But the sign," whispered Neville, turning away from the doors and walking quietly away, "it said, 'Roots Access B'"

"Right now I don't care if it said 'Dragons, Werewolves, and Vampires' - I want to be far away from those doors in case they open them." Bingley was chanting softly as they went, hiding their footsteps in new dust. She stopped abruptly to listen to what was being said beyond the doors.

"Clever man!" she said. "They've turned back. They think they're in the wrong place!"

"Why are they--" whispered Hermione.

"It must have been Rolf's doing," said Bingley. "He's probably used a mild confusion hex - a diversion of some kind, a decoy thought into their heads. Just a belief they've gone the wrong way would do it. It's better than a blocker. They won't even realize. It will gain us more time - but they'll be back."

"For a naturalist, Rolf makes a bloody good spy, Luna," said Harry. "You should have seen him with Crachflink. He's a quick thinker."

"Creatures are not so different from people. Perhaps he has to distract them sometimes to survive." replied Luna. There was a noticeable tremor in her voice that was very un-Luna-like. Harry bit his lip. He'd forgotten Luna must be as scared for Rolf as Hermione was for Ron.

"He's the best, Luna," said Harry softly, trying to sound reassuring. "He's like a shadow. They won't even suspect he's there."

He turned to where he had last heard Hermione's voice. "He'll get Ron out of this, don't worry, Hermione."

Hermione did not reply. Harry thought he heard a faint sob.

"Now where?" Neville had made his way to the front of the group but they had found themselves in an extended hall divided by endless coarse wooden pillars crudely misaligned and of varying thicknesses. Neville crouched to examine the slabbed floor which was extensively cracked and mouldy. Luna smoothed her hand over the nearest pillar but it felt as rough as it looked and there were no decorative features - nothing of much interest anywhere.

"They really, really, ought to have paid for a decent architect," said Harry, shaking his invisible head and bumping Ginny's. "This the best the Death Eaters could do?"

"They're very disappointing, aren't they," said Luna. She sounded as sad as Hermione.

Although there was some ambient light it was hard to see very far. A haze that was not dust obscured any detail beyond their immediate vicinity and they dare not produce a light. The ceiling was lost in the dark and the mist above them. They were also becoming aware of an odour - a strange, organic smell like wet soil. The stone floor was slippery with its mould and filth coating. And there was a murmur - not just one but seemingly a host of faint murmurs merging into one in the distance.

"They're here!" said Bingley. "We've come upon the rest of the Death Eaters. Must be."

Neville had stopped to listen and they were all obliged to stop too. He was their visible anchor; nobody relished getting separated from each other - and calling out was not an option.

There was an immensity to the sound - a substantial weight such that even though it seemed far off, it gave an impression of a great many voices.

"Thousands. There are thousands aren't there?" said Hermione dismally, "and we've walked right into the lion's den. Oh Ron..."

"It's mainly in that direction," said Neville. "Wait, which way is which?"

Luna already had her wand in hand and cast the four-point spell. "It's north. They're to the north."

"Right. We head south," said Neville firmly, sounding pleased to have a choice in which he felt confident. He set off decisively and the rest followed.

Harry grinned but he was trying to force some humour he did not feel. "Good thinking, Nev."

Hermione moved up ahead past Harry and Ginny, closer to Neville. There had been little time before to discuss the details of Ron's disappearance.

"Neville, what did... What actually happened?" she said, voice quivering a little. "Did they hurt him?"

"No - he went ahead of me and Rolf," said Neville. "They nearly got him! Killing curse just missed him."

Hermione gasped and sniffled a little.

"Neville!" cautioned Harry quietly.

"Sorry but..." said Neville. "He wasn't hit by it. That's when he stumbled over. I think he was dodging it and nearly fell over the bottom step else he'd have been able to defend himself. He had his wand out. Must be when he dropped it."

"How many grabbed him? Why--"

"They didn't. We didn't see anybody," said Neville. "They... Someone just hovered him up the stairs before we - me and Rolf - could even move. He never... Ron never called out - he was conscious - his eyes were open - but he never... Probably shocked. Perhaps they stupified him. It was all over in seconds."

"Didn't you try to stop them?" Hermione sounded a little exasperated.

"Rolf made me come back and he went straight after Ron," said Neville defensively. "Straight away. He told me I must get all of you through - that was the priority."

"And he was right," said Bingley who could just about hear the conversation at the back of the group. "They'll comb the woods now for sure. They'll be much more rigorous and without Rolf we'd be in serious trouble. There's a lot of them - we know that now."

"He'll get him, Hermione," said Harry, who had also been listening in. "Rolf will get him back. He'll follow them like... They won't see him. They won't hear anything. If he can sneak into a pack of manticores and out again then I'm sure stupid Death Eaters are no problem to him."

Harry suddenly thought of Luna. Invisibility made one forget who was there sometimes. "That's right isn't it Luna? You know how brilliant he is tracking and stealth and..."

There was a short delay before Luna spoke and there was no certainty in her tone which was flat and weak and very serious. "No. It's a passel of manticores not a pack. Rolf is used to being among dangerous magical creatures and to taking the utmost care. It's a similar situation don't you think? I'm sure he'll do the right things."

Luna and Feya were together, comforting each other. Bingley was bringing up the rear just behind them listening to their whispers as a guide to where they were. She regularly glanced back to see that they were not being followed.

The pillars thinned out a little as they proceeded but the huge hall seemed even darker ahead of them.

"How big is this place?" grumbled Ginny to nobody in particular, hugging Harry a little tighter under their cloak as if to shelter from the gloomy atmosphere.

"Wall ahead. We've reached the side," said Neville, turning along it. "Chance a light? I can hardly see."

"I'd rather not," said Bingley. "Do your best, Neville."

"Don't touch the wall then," said Neville. "Whatever you do, don't touch the wall."

"Why not?" asked Bingley.

"Slimy sludge. Yuk. Don't they ever clean this place? Filch would have a meltdown." said Neville."Don't touch it until I can find out what mould it is. There are some rather nasty types you don't want to know what they do to you..."

"What do they do, Neville?" said Harry, both curious and concerned.

"Well, there's rinocraskium that dries, hardens, splits, cracks, stings, and absorbs all your--"

"We don't want to know, thanks," said Harry hastily.

The distant murmuring was much fainter now. All they could hear was the squelch of their feet as they stepped through the filthy goo underfoot.

"Door," said Neville, "Hermione? Would you? - but don't touch it."

"Alohomora," muttered Hermione softly.

Nothing happened.

"Focus, Hermione," said Bingley. "Want me to do it?"

"Sorry, no... I'm just..." Hermione faltered. "Alohomora."

The door slowly opened. Harry glanced towards where he had heard Bingley, wondering if she was thinking the same as himself.

"He'll be alright, Hermione," he said. "We'll make it right. You hang in there."

Hermione did not answer.

Neville whispered back as he went through the doorway, "We're going to have use a light. Last man... No wait. I'll close the door."

There was a shuffling and scraping of their shoes on dry dusty stone.

"Everybody in?"

"I'll do it, Neville," said Bingley. "Collorportus ... Lumos."

They were in a large store room filled with rows of wooden racks carrying tools, bags, sacks, and boxes of various dimensions. The racks reached right up to the low ceiling. Stone steps leading upwards were visible through an open doorway on the far wall. Metal hand scoops lay upon open barrels and crates that were arranged along the side wall. They contained different powders and granules. Long-handled implements with strange tines, hooks, and blades had been placed carelessly against the wall and some had fallen over. Neville was more interested in his hands.

"What is this stuff?" he muttered, staring at the dull grey-green slime covering his fingers. "Never seen any mould like it."

"It's not mould," said Bingley. "It's more like ectoplasm..."

"Get it off me!" cried Neville. "Get if off. How do we get it off?"

"Hold on - I didn't say it actually is. It's not quite the same as ectoplasm - just looks more like it than mould I think," said Bingley. "Come here."

Bingley countered her disillusionment charm and everyone followed her example and popped into view.

Bingley looked closely at the gunge on Neville's hands before incanting, "Skurge."

She looked relieved to see his hands cleansed of the filthy slime. "It wasn't ectoplasm but very similar. Your hands look alright. Any pain? Soreness?"

"No - I just felt odd when you said it's like ectoplasm. I hate that stuff."

"It's not bad on toast, Neville," said Ginny as she picked up a long curved scythe-like blade from a shelf.

"Best not touch anything," said Harry.

"I think it's the stuff they use to maintain the woodland garden," said Neville, peering at a lengthy threaded shaft. "This looks like a wood drill."

"I see nothing useful here," said Bingley. "Let's try the stairs."

"That you, Tepps?" called a voice from somewhere above them.

Everybody froze and listened. Wands were being silently raised. There was the soft sound of padded feet descending.

Luna pushed Feya towards Bingley and walked swiftly forward ahead of everyone else and crouched sideways to the steps, signalling back to everyone else to do likewise. Bingley's wand was still lit. She looked at Luna questioningly and pointed at her wand. Luna shook her head and mouthed something.

A great mastiff, heavily-built and higher than Luna's stooped form, strode into view and paused on the last step, looking around at the intruders. Luna averted her gaze and slowly blew out a large gentle breath. She kept her arms down non-threateningly but she held her wand tightly. The dog came to investigate, wagging its tail. It circled the room, sniffing at everyone in turn. They in turn, mimicked Luna. They kept quietly crouched, not looking directly at the dog.

"Tepps?" came from above again.

The dog, apparently satisfied, ran back to the stairs. From the ground Luna pointed her wand at its back and whispered softly. The dog paused and glanced back but Luna was still not looking at it directly. The beast turned and trotted back up the stairs.

"Ah there you are!" said the voice. "Come on then, boy."

There was the sound of fading footsteps overhead. For half a minute everyone was silent then let out a long-held breath.

"How are we going to avoid that?" said Harry. There was relief in his voice nonetheless.

"What did you do to it, Luna?" asked Bingley, guiding the little elf back to her side.

"Poor thing won't be able to smell," said Luna, smiling ruefully. "It works on wild pigs anyway. Rolf taught me."

"How long?"

"Don't know. At least hours anyway. Rolf will know."

"How will he find us again?" said Neville. "I mean he can't be sure we're not still in the woods. And if we carry on to see what's up these stairs..."

"I want to go back," said Hermione firmly.

"Hermione, we can't," said Harry. "We have to--"

"Just me," said Hermione. "Ron refused to leave me in the pass. He could have escaped but he would not leave me even though it seemed hopeless. I won't abandon him now."

"We're not abandoning him, Hermione!" said Harry. "Rolf has the best chance of helping him. Our duty is to--"

"Duty? Duty?" cried Hermione. "I love him. My duty is to be with him."

"Your duty is to do the right thing - even if it breaks your heart," said Bingley. "You know it's what Ron would want you to do."

"I can't help it," said Hermione. She was crying now. "I must--"

"Hermione, be reasonable," said Harry. "Where will you go? Back to the stairs where he was taken? He could be anywhere. For all we know these stairs might lead to him."

"Rolf will know what to do," said Luna softly. "He will come back to us and then we will know what to do."

"Then I'm staying here," said Hermione. "I'll wait for Rolf and Ron here. Not a step further."

Harry sighed. "Hermione, what if that dog returns? It might not be so friendly. What if its owner comes down here?"

"I have my wand. I know what I'll do," said Hermione resolutely. She wiped her eyes and lifted her chin "I'm not going and that's flat."

"Perhaps we could investigate further then come back for Hermione?" suggested Neville.

"Then I'll stay," said Harry. "I'll stay with you, Hermione. You're my best friend. So's Ron."

"Then I'm staying too," said Ginny.

Luna was also eyeing Feya and her body language indicated she was reluctant to leave Rolf too far behind as well.

Now it was Bingley's turn to sigh. "We can't split up like this. There's no advantage - only more risk. We have to consider the rest of the world is at risk not just our personal loved ones."

"What about your parents, Hermione?" said Neville. He was thinking of his own. He was wondering if there would be a world to return to if they ever escaped from this underground complex. "You've got to think about--"

Hermione's face contorted in grief as she wrestled with her emotions. She sat down on a crate at the end of a shelf unit.

"Don't Nev," said Harry quietly, putting his hand on Hermione's shoulder then he mouthed at Neville, "You're torturing her. It's bad enough..."

"There must be another way," said Ginny. "We can't just--"

"Then this is what I propose," said Bingley. "Neville, you and I will scout ahead to see where this leads. The rest of you wait here - but keep quiet for Merlin's sake."

They did remain subdued after Bingley and Neville left. Ginny lit her wand as Bingley's light disappeared up the stairs then was extinguished. Everyone found a box or a big sack to sit on. Harry gave his careful inspection before sitting down with a rueful grin at Ginny who squashed on beside him. Many minutes passed in silence interrupted only by Ginny's occasional wriggling to gain space on the sack.

"Luna, anything we can do to help Rolf?" asked Harry softly.

"No, he'll follow our tracks through the Roots easily enough," Luna replied.

"Through the what?" exclaimed Harry in a loud whisper.

"Through the Roots," replied Luna, "The way we've just come."

"Luna, what are you saying," said Ginny. Everyone was keeping their voice low but there was a growing excitement in their tones.

"Rolf will be able to see where we trod in that horrid mouldy stuff easily," said Luna. "I remember once in the woods he--"

"The Roots, Luna," said Harry. "What do you mean, the Roots?"

Luna stared round at everyone and they were all staring back, "But I thought... Harry Potter, do you mean you walk around with your eyes closed when you're invisible? We've just walked between the Roots."

"Those wooden pillars?" said Ginny.

Luna laughed. "Didn't anyone look at them? They're roots - the Roots of the World."

"Luna, you are three stops past Barking," said Hermione with a grin of exasperation. It was a revolt against her inner pain. "You've finally cracked up. That is the daftest thing you've ever said."

"Made you smile though?" said Luna with a weak one of her own.

"You were joking then?" said Harry, somewhat confused.

"Yes, Harry," said Luna with an unusual note of sarcasm in her voice, "I was joking."

Perhaps even Luna was getting tired of people not believing what to her seemed obvious. She got up and went to the stairs. Feya trotted after her. "Just going to take a peek..."

She started slowly up the stairs and called back quietly from around the corner, "...see if there's any more Roots anywhere." There was a smile in her voice as it faded upwards.

"Should I go after her?" said Ginny. "She was joking right?"

"I don't know anymore," sighed Harry. "We wouldn't be here if it wasn't for Luna."

And a fine mess we're in," said Ginny, just making conversation.

"We've been in worse," said Harry. Hermione had slumped back into her inner sorrows. She could not stop thinking of Ron. She knew first hand what the Death Eaters were capable of - how they treated their prisoners. She was unable to stop dwelling for long on what might be happening to him right now.

Several more minutes passed in gloomy silence. Harry's stomach rumbled.

"Hungry?" said Ginny. "Me too. I didn't like to say... In the circumstances."

"We'll have to wait..." said Harry. "Feya can... Hermione, got any of those chocolate frogs left?"

Hermione dug into her bag and handed round a couple of frogs each. She munched on her own without interest.

They heard running footsteps overhead, coming towards the stairs and they all stood up, wands raised, wasting to the floor the remains of their improvised snack. It was Luna and Feya though who appeared on the steps.

"They're coming," she said breathlessly.

"Everybody back to one side," said Harry as he took up position against the wall next to the stair doorway. Ginny doused her wand light.

"No, Professor Bingley and Neville are coming," said Luna, lighting her own wand to replace Ginny's.

"So soon?" said Harry. "They've not been gone twenty minutes."

"Neville looked... positive," said Luna hesitantly.

There was not long to wait before they all could confirm Luna's assessment. Neville appeared on his own.

"Found a gangway thingy - and there's something weird. Come on everybody," cried Neville, on foot on the last step and his body twisted around ready to re-ascend. "Harry, you got Worley's omnioculars?"

"No, she... Hang on..." began Harry as everyone started to head towards the stairs. "Yes! I'd completely forgotten. Hermione, you got Worley's bag?"

"I never had it. What do you mean?" said Hermione.

"Your bag! Bag in your bag!" Harry was fumbling at Hermione's bag at her waist but she slapped his hand away and opened it herself with a puzzled look on her face.

"You remember? Just before the void we put it in there," said Harry.

"I think I was a little distracted with Ron rolling backwards through the wall as I recall," said Hermione drily.

"Is this it?" She pulled out the small bag that Harry had retrieved from Worley's charred remains.

Harry snatched it from her, almost getting another slap, and fumbled it open. As he pulled out the omnioculars, Worley's notebook came out with it and fell unnoticed to the floor.

"They still working? There's something interesting, Harry. We've gotta go..."

Harry had the omnioculars to his eyes for only a few seconds then he lowered them and sank back against the wall, eyes staring.

"What's up?" whispered Ginny.

When Harry didn't reply she wrestled the omnioculars from his grasp and looked through them.

"What's wrong," said Neville. "Are they working or what?"

Ginny lowered the omnioculars. She looked as stunned as Harry. Then puzzled. She turned to Harry. "She... 'Sorry, Harry.' She's saying 'Sorry, Harry.'"

She put the omnioculars back to her eyes and looked again.

"What's it mean though?" said Harry. "It means something."

"What's the holdup?" Bingley had descended the stairs to find out what the delay was.

"Something else... 'Notes' I think. She saying 'Notes'," said Ginny.

"Her notebook!" exclaimed Harry, delving back into Worley's bag.

"It's here, Harry," said Luna from across the room. She was sitting on a barrel with her feet resting on a low shelf and reading the notebook she had found on the floor.

"Neville," she said. "You didn't realize this was pensieve parchment when you read it, did you?"

"It's what?" said Neville.

"Back outside the mountain - before we even got in the pass," said Luna. "You remember?"

"Well I..."

"No, of course not," said Luna, more to herself than to Neville. She began to move her wand over the book while softly chanting to herself.

"What are you looking for, Luna?" said Bingley.

"Professor Bingley," said Luna, "I think there's a ward on this book. Do you think you might counter it?"

"But the book is already open. If there's a ward it's not locked," said Bingley.

"So... would it not then be easier to find the counter-spell now it's already unsealed?" asked Luna.

"But what would be the point? It's already open."

Luna handed the book to Bingley who confirmed there was a ward and spent several minutes investigating it. She then looked up with amazement written on her face.

"It's my name! The counter-spell is my name. It's 'Anthea'," said Bingley.

"She meant you to read this?" said Luna.

"But why? You've already told me it only contains false notes."

"Exactly," said Luna.

Bingley stared at Luna. "You're thinking if these are false then where are her real notes?"

Luna smiled. "Try the counter-spell. Perhaps it's a double ward," suggested Luna.

Bingley used the counter-spell but the text simply cleared to blank pages. She repeated and they reappeared again.

"Try seven times," said Luna, who had been observing with interest.

Bingley repeated the invocation seven times quickly in sequence. The text appeared and disappeared in turn until on the seventh there was a change. Fine, more densely packed writings appeared and the pages multiplied into hundreds.

"These must be her true notes," said Bingley. She sighed. "I was hoping there might be something useful to us in here - but it would take us days to analyse this lot."

"Not necessarily," said Harry. He turned to Hermione. "Hermione, would your index charm work on this do you think?"

"Yes..." said Hermione hesitantly. "It can show us what is relevant at the time you use it."

Bingley passed her the notebook and Hermione passed her wand expertly over it. This was a spell she had used countless times in the school library. After a while she turned a few pages, holding the notebook closer to Ginny's wand light, then began to read out loud. Hermione's voice was softened by the sacking and old woodwork in the storeroom but she spoke clearly for everyone to hear.

12187: Dumbledore refused me! I think he suspects but there is no way he can be certain.

12660: It's true. There really is a world curse but nobody knows anything about it. Not a single clue. It's too much. Goes too far. It has to be stopped. It has to be prevented.


Hermione paused and looked up.

"Go on, Hermione. Carry on," said Bingley quietly.


12940: Some tenuous information but subject died under interrogation. China. North. 'nobilis'? It's for the greater good. Whatever it takes. The curse MUST be found and stopped. No matter what. No sympathy. No compassion. Blank it all out. If I fail then all may perish.


Hermione's voice was trembling and she faltered and stopped again for a few seconds then resumed.


13250: Finally, Lestraithe found traces of dark magic. Promising. Right area. I'm suspicious though that she found it relatively quickly. What is she not telling me?

13262: Confirmed. No progress.

13271: Went again to site but hopeless. Too many curses. Too powerful. No certain indication it is the right place.

13275: Again. Agony of despair and melancholy curses. Barely escaped the gorge this time. Nothing. Lestraithe keeps out of it.

13284: Valley found. Entry below Manse seems near impossible without the Dark Lord. I have some ideas that can be tried out though.

13305: This was the Dark Lord's greatest secret. I now think very few knew on the outside and most died in the Hogwarts Battle - or at the Dark Lord's own hands. But inside! We had an elf. Quite mad. Mad before we even started interrogations...


Once again, Hermione fell silent for a while then continued.


...before we even started... Many come in. None go out. And the Dark Lord was the elf's master! The Dark Lord lives within! How can this be? I've seen the body. Did he finally find a way back? Immortality? The elf could not tell a lie under Veritaserum nor could it be fooled into obeying someone using polyjuice. An elf will only obey its true master.

13366: I am assigned to Hogwarts for general surveillance. It's ironic that now the Dark Lord has been defeated and Dumbledore is dead too that I should be sidelined here when the most serious threat to mankind should be the first, last, and only priority. The fools! Do they think the few can survive without the many! Clearly wizards are superior to muggles but to destroy them all - and all wizards but purebloods - this is absurd. There must be balance.

13411: Can scarcely believe it! Harry Potter had some kind of insight into the Dark Lord's mind and gave it to me of his own free will! It confirms the area is correct - but we were fairly certain anyway. I must inform the Death Eaters and use them - at least to begin with.

13414: Disaster! Harry Potter has actually located the mountain. Hard to believe but he has. This is a great pity. I had come to like him - him and his friends. But they cannot be allowed to live. It's for the greater good. I must blot out all compassion. I must not fail. I have a plan.


Hermione lowered the book. "That's all the index charm revealed. That's all that's relevant to us."

"She died trying to save the world," said Luna.

"Sh... she was evil!" stammered Neville. "Look what she did to Harry and me and--"

"She was always ruthlessly methodical," said Bingley. Her eyes were looking into the distance. "She was brilliant in her own way but she became like a machine - devoid of feeling for anyone."

"She said she liked Harry... and his friends," said Luna. "I think... I think... when she spoke to me... she was genuine. She treated me with respect."

"You're a pureblood aren't you?" said Neville. "She would - at least until..."

"In the end she would have killed you Luna," growled Harry. "Don't you see?"

"Wit beyond measure is perhaps not man's greatest treasure," said Luna thoughtfully.

"I confirmed it for her," said Harry bitterly. "Me and my big mouth."

"At least she already knew. At least you didn't tell the Death Eaters something they knew nothing about," said Ginny, looking closely at Harry's face.

"We could have worked together," said Hermione. "Instead of fighting one another, we could have worked together to the same end."

"Not the other Death Eaters though," said Harry. "They're all nutters, her and them, in their own way."

"Many come in. None go out," said Bingley. "It is as I feared. I've thought for a long time it was not possible for even the greatest of wizards to curse the entire world. But an army of Death Eaters! Think of it! Working together to curse the world!"

"Worley was suspicious of Lestraithe," continued Bingley, but she never discovered that Lestraithe knew about the world curse all along - in fact helped set it up along with this place."

"But for her part, Lestraithe was suspicious of Worley but she didn't actually know Worley's 'great plan' was to stop the world curse," said Harry.

"What a twisted mirror - always causes misery," mused Bingley.

"'Twisted mirror?' What's that," asked Hermione.

"Oh, nothing - Just an expression of deceit - from some morality tales of old," said Bingley. "Perhaps I'll tell them to you some time - but sad stories are not for down here. Come on. Straighten this place up a bit how it was before. Bring the omnioculars, Harry. We'll show you what we've found."

Bingley went back up the stairs followed by Luna and Feya. The rest made a desultory effort to push sacks and boxes around roughly how they were before.

"Don't use Scourgify," said Hermione, "it will remove all the old dust as well."

"So how are we supposed to..." began Neville then he saw what the others were doing.

They started to manually pick up odd scraps they had forgotten. Hermione stopped. She was staring at the ground in dismay. Staring back up at her from the litter was Ron's smiling face. He winked, flexed his biceps, then laughed and waved. Hermione turned, tears streaming down her face and stalked off up the stairs.

Neville reached down and picked up the frog card that lay there and read it out, "'Ron Weasley. Hero of the Second Wizarding War. 1980 - 1998'"

Harry gulped like a fish. "They think we're all dead."

"Oh my God!" said Harry after a few moments.

"What now?" said Ginny.

"Christmas hols must be starting around now. All those snotty little first years on the train home - gawping at cards with all us dead heroes on," said Harry, his eyes far away in another world.

Neville handed Harry the card. "It will correct itself when... You know... When we... return. Keep it for her - she'll come round once Ron is back with us. We'll all have a laugh about it one day."

"Right," said Harry thoughtfully, slipping the card into his own bag and continuing to himself, Let's hope there is another 'one day'.

They hurried up the stairs after the others.

"Wait till you see what we found, Harry!" said Neville. "Wait till you see what we found!"




Chapter 32: Crouching High
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Eager to see what mighty discovery Neville and Professor Bingley had found above the storeroom, Harry was not immediately impressed. At the top of the stairs was just another slightly larger area stocked with similar tools and supplies as the one the group had just come from below and like that twin it looked disused. It had an open doorway and Bingley was stood in it signalling caution while she looked up and down the passageway outside.

Satisfied, she indicated they should follow and they kept silence as they filed out after her. Bingley had not used the disillusionment spell on herself so nobody else did either. Harry thought she seemed more confident now she had already been this way and presumably found it clear. There was very little light anyway and various twists and turns and doorways to dodge around if needed.

As they proceeded down the first passageway, Luna paused and looked with interest at a door they were passing marked 'Additional Creatures'.

"Don't go in there, Luna," cautioned Bingley. "We've looked briefly. It's mostly empty - cages and so on. We're sure it must be where they portkeyed in some of the creatures for the valley."

"But there's still things in there," said Neville. "I saw a small acromantula. Stupefied or something of course but still..."

"They must have decided against putting some of the creatures into the ark, then," said Luna. "That's a pity."

"A pity!" said Harry. "You wouldn't say that if you'd been surrounded by thousands of them waiting for their dinner."

"Perhaps not," said Luna, "but they are very interesting don't you think?"

"Yeah, interesting as in 'I wonder if they'll eat me in one go or save some for later,' interesting."

Bingley and Neville led the way through two connected rooms - empty except for a broken down table and some empty, open-topped crates. Old straw packing littered the floor near them. Beyond these rooms a short passage led to a closed door marked 'Maintenance Supplies - Metalwork' but Neville was pointing not at that but up the wall outside which was all but lost in shadow. Staring hard into the gloom, Harry detected the glint of a short metal ladder bolted to the wall; it was leading up to a trapdoor in the ceiling. This ladder had such a flimsy structure they took it in turns to climb it. Harry helped Ginny onto it but he felt disinclined to add his weight until she alighted at the top only a few feet above him.

"Watch that third rung, Harry," she whispered back down, rubbing her head. "Oh yes, and watch your head when you get up here too."

The low crouch space that Harry found when he ascended did not seem very interesting either but when Neville came up last he had a grin on his face. He nodded at Harry's inquiring look to suggest he follow the others to satisfy his curiosity. Neville must have learned Bingley's dust spell because he scattered clouds back down before closing the trapdoor.

Everyone accept Feya was on hands and knees because of the low headroom and the crouchway was also so narrow that Harry began to feel a little claustrophobic. He felt vulnerable crawling along like this and the idea of meeting the dog head on in here concerned him for a while and he whispered that fear to Ginny.

"That big brute would never be able to climb the ladder," said Ginny. "I feel safer up here than below anyhow."

Harry realized she had made a good point. There was a sense of being secure from the Death Eaters at least. It seemed unlikely the travellers would be seen accidentally as they might well have done in a passageway or room below.

The crouchway was all-enclosed, being of sturdy metal box girders and panels with rough wood planking to walk on but its right wall was formed of heavy stone blocks. Harry had lost his sense of direction but he had a feeling the crouchway was built high up a wall inside the big hall they had passed through earlier. It was lengthy. Ginny was looking back at Harry and pulling wry faces, indicating her sore hands and knees and the dust in her mouth kicked up by Luna scrabbling in front of her. Harry was the same. His hands were black with dirt and scratched and he could taste dirt.

After a distance which might have been anywhere from fifty to a hundred normal strides the crouchway became temporarily wider and it was just high enough for the girls to stand. It was a relief to be less restricted for a while. On the right was a dusty wooden shelf or perhaps it was a bench. It was empty and plenty long enough for them all to sit on for a few minutes. Opposite was a narrow gap in a metal panel that Harry thought might be an inspection window and he shuffled forwards on his knees to take a look.

"Can't see nothing out of that one," said Neville.

Neville was right but there was, however, an impression of a large dark space - probably derived from some slight movement of the air through the unglazed opening. A faint vertical dark shadow made Harry wonder if he was looking at one of the wooden pillars in the big hall. He wished he dare light his wand but he knew it was not worth the risk.

Ginny came forward to peek but was as disappointed in the view as Harry was. The others had already started to crawl forward and Ginny followed with Harry behind and Neville last again.

"Ask Neville how far's this go to," said Ginny from ahead. Harry in the middle relayed the messages backwards and forwards. He laughed the first couple of times but then it got tedious very quickly.

"It goes on quite a way," said Neville. "There are more of these 'rest rooms' or whatever they are. I think they're really so people can pass one another going in opposite directions - a pass-space - and to store stuff maybe. The dust was undisturbed when we first came up. Nobody's been up here in years."

"Don't know why they didn't just make them bigger so people can stand up properly," moaned Ginny as she checked her palm for a splinter.

"But that's good," said Harry, "If nobody's been up here I mean - we're not likely to bump into anyone we don't like."

He could faintly hear Luna talking ahead but conversation was limited to the person immediately ahead and behind.

The next 'rest room' as Neville called it was as boring as the first so they didn't stop long except to look at the darkness through its inspection hole. Poor Ginny's hands were now badly scratched and spotted with blood but magical folk worry less about such things than muggles and she shrugged her shoulders.

"Wish we had gloves," said Harry, comparing his hands with Ginny's and his were not much better. "We'll heal them up next stop."

Harry looked back at Neville who took his turn at the window even though he knew there would be nothing to see here. Harry stared at him.

"Your hands, Nev."

"Yeah, good innit?" smirked Neville, holding out his hands, palm uppermost. They were clean, unscratched, and looked baby-soft.

"The mould did that?" asked Ginny.

"Yeah. Must be. Professor Bingley thinks it might be a magical algae thing or somesuch."

The crawling was becoming tiresome for both Ginny and Harry. It seemed unnecessary to make the walkway so constricted quite apart from the wear and tear on their hands and knees. Neville seemed to accept it - partly because he felt it was worthwhile and partly because his hands just did not seem to get scratched nor even dirty.

Harry could hear Ginny muttering to Luna just ahead of her. Ginny bumped her head on an overhead strut lurching round to look back over her shoulder. "It's an elf-way!" she grinned then resumed her crawling. "Luna says so."

"Makes sense I suppose," muttered Harry to himself but it did not make his knees hurt any less.

"Next one, Harry," said Neville from behind.

"Next one what?"

"You'll see."

When they emerged into the next pass-space everyone was already competing to look through the inspection hatch. Bingley was vigorously signalling to Harry and Ginny to be quiet. To Harry she cupped her hands near her eyes to remind him of the omnioculars.

The others parted for Harry to come through to the window but he could not get any information from their staring faces except a sense of excitement.

When Harry first looked through the hatch he was disappointed because it seemed as dark as the others but he was looking straight out. When Bingley grabbed his head and twisted it forward he could see there was some gloomy light - just enough that he could see the tops of some of the wooden pillars where they met the ceiling at the height of the elf-way. He was indeed looking out into the big hall. The pillars descended into haze but it was slightly clearer at the top and Harry could see further ahead - back the way they had originally come in. The pillars were closer together the further he looked until they almost seemed to fill the hall but at the same time they were more and more distorted - twisted over and curving at strange angles. From this vantage point, seeing a wider view, it suddenly became obvious what they were - or at least what they resembled - something that was not obvious when they had passed their spaced-out bases in darkness earlier. They were indeed, roots. There was no doubt. Gigantic yes, but clearly roots in shape. Some were just two or three feet in diameter but many were eight feet across, perhaps more. The hall was thickly choked with them further along.

Harry became conscious he could hear the murmuring they had heard earlier and he thought he saw movement below in the haze. He strained his eyes but it was too dark. His neck was hurting on the edge of the metal window through which he had half pushed his head to see better but he could not resist continuing to look at the amazing scene. It was surreal. The roots, if that's what they really were, were greyish-green, rough and fibrous, and curled around and entwined one another here and there. The gloom made it a strain to see them but there was no doubt as to their general form and it was hard to suppose they were constructed just to look like giant roots if that was not what they were.

At their thickest place the ceiling disappeared from view as if sloping upwards away from Harry. He wondered if it reached right up to the surface but it seemed unlikely. The roots must have grown here for decades but there was nothing visible on the surface that any of them had seen in the valley.

A slight gust of air blew dust into his eyes but just as he was withdrawing his head back the haze thinned slightly below. For less than a second Harry thought he saw something living in the darkness - a grey swaying harvest - then it was gone.

He stepped back and shook his head wondering what he had imagined, trying to interpret the glimpse into anything that made sense. He could not.

"What was it Harry?" asked Ginny. "What did you see?"

"Don't know," said Harry, not wanting to know. He felt a strangely alien fear. "Don't know. Too much haze."

"No, ahead, Harry," said Neville, "further ahead. Through the gap."

"Didn't see a gap..."

Harry reluctantly pushed his head back out and stared forwards at the root-shapes. As before, he could see the furthest visible roots were forming a thick barrier to anything beyond; the only gaps showed more roots beyond. Then he saw what Neville must have meant. There was one dark narrow gap far in the distance but nothing else to be seen. Even the omnioculars did not help; they just made the dark gap seem bigger. He pulled back.